Interview with Jen Reich by Cynthia Quarrie
CQ: Tell me about where these pieces come from.
JR: How weird is it that after all these years Im making something similar to the stuff I made beforeout of stainless steel, wire and glass back in 2002and its all come about after working for this abortion clinic? They put me in pathology, which is making sure all the tissue is there, making sure its a complete removal. So youre dealing with fetuses, starting at four-five weeks and in Michigan, up to twenty-four. Its not something I ever would have envisioned doing, not sure anyone does.
CQ: Its not something you think about. The abortion, on the other side, ends in the recovery room. You can easily forget that theres a whole other invisible side to that process.
JR: Id never thought about it myself. I mean it makes sense, but its not part of peoples experience. Patients can choose to view the tissue after its removed, which I think is correct in terms of, its your body and you should have every choice, though I never recommend it. Theres an example they can see, but its weird, especially when its just a blob. And you know, after a while it gets a little
traumatic. But I remember one of the doctors saying to me, I bet youll find plenty of inspiration here, and I was like, Hmmm. I wasnt thinking about it that way.
I mean at ten weeks there are limbs and a translucence and you can see veins. Thats when you have to start counting limbs, because thats when theyre formed enough to remain identifiable post suction. That look was something I was trying to find, in a visual sense theyre on a light box. Its pink, but you can see veins, and theres this light coming through it. After a few weeks its still very small but you get more density, and at 24 weeks, its, well
I didnt even know! And we deal with fetal anomalies, and those are crazy, both in terms of what people are going through, but also in terms of what you see.
I mean Im not deluded theres something outside the body that inside the body could be alive, that is no longer alive, but most of the time [an abortion] is how someone allows the life to continue that already is. I mean most people who come in have kids, they have lives, they have things they want to do, or whatever. In a way its a circle, in a sense. This end allows for beginning, or continuing travel in the same direction.
Its funny because I was thinking I probably shouldnt write about bloody fetuses for my artists statement, you know?
CQ: [laughs] I can see why you might think that! But its really interesting context. I see the work in a very different way now, and I dont know what word to use here but visceral, actually. Its like youre re-constructing after having deconstructed.
JR: Well and Im talking back to what I was making years ago. I mean theres plenty of difference, but the similarities
its just so weird to think, whats in your mind, before it ever comes into play, things that are themes or are visually part of your consciousness, but its strange to think that something so clear to me at least, not just the forms but the way that they cycle something about the look of them, I guess they were always there.
CQ: SW doesnt necessarily look like a body part, though it has very organic elements, but Lung obviously does.
JR: Those arent the [final] names [of the pieces]. And yeah I wanted different things for each one. The names for each one come up when Im pretending I dont know what any one is. The names are just so that I can keep track of them, in my files.
CQ: So the two-letters (SW for example) is a way of not letting it get trapped in denotation, in a fixed idea.
JR: My friend said its like my Rorschach test. And it kind of is: how Im identifying the form that has come out of what I was envisioning. Theyre not exactly bodies, but they end up being creatures, in a sense, just because they evolve.
CQ: What is the final product? Is it the documentation, the video, the process? Because in the last images, the creatures are shriveled and blackening so its funny to think about them as the telos, that youre making them to get to that final stage. Because it seems like youre making so that you can see the whole process.
JR: Yes, its the process. The piece is the photos, the video. I mean I have the final pieces. If anyone saw my refrigerator! Theyre so small if I pulled one out youd be surprised.
CQ: I couldnt tell from the photos. The string on SW could be industrial twine.
JR: Its thread. I used that thread to sew a button onto my sweater. Theyre microcosms. Theyre so tiny. My close-up sight is very detailed. Its always been that way, with fine details as to texture. I remember in school wanting to make something larger, and a former teacher / friend told me to make a mock-up so I could make it larger, but in the end, I keep thinking about these in terms of that storyline they are these weird little things in a dollhouse or something.
CQ: And in the context of your job, its relational to that, to both start small and end small.
JR: I think sometimes things start out of necessity. Im in an apartment, I dont have a studio space, and you work inside your parameters. Its sort of a drive in some ways those limitations direct you. I feel like the photos make them larger. Youd crack up if you could see the photo studio in my closet.
Theyre about this big [shows about two inches between fingers]. Lung is the largest of them, but its smaller than your hand. I guess I do think about the tissue. I do think of the fact that people get to live their lives, that there is life still comes out of [the women having had these abortions]. Its also about this amazing process of our bodies that I would never see otherwise. I mean you know it, but you dont necessarily think about how something develops, and the details
like when I first saw one where the veins had a marked difference
. from a blob to
something. Theres the experience of my pieces drying and going crusty, and all of those things played in.
Something I never understood before is that the number of weeks a pregnancy is counted at, starts before conception. Its because, I get it, its your cycle and your body preparing for pregnancy, the egg is part of the process, the gestational length. At work, we have these cardboard wheels, and you put it at the beginning of the last period and the date now and you get the number of weeks. It took me so long to figure it out but it made me think that its so strange that that is counted as part of life, before theres conception (which destroys the anti-abortionists arguments by the way).
CQ: It changes the temporality, the timeline; it recenters the womans process and the womans body, when life doesnt start with the moment the sperm enters the egg and makes the zygote.
JR: It doesnt start with the act. Its a different way of thinking about it. It becomes I mean the more pregnant someone is, the further along, the more life we attach to a baby or a fetus or whatever it ends up becoming. But women have those two weeks every month! You think about how much is just chance. I mean our bodies expel it, but look at how things grow and develop. Looking at something thats the beginning of life is very weird. I mean look at a seed and the way it grows, its all life cycles.
CQ: If you think of the life cycle of a plant, you think about when the seed sprouts. But if youre thinking of pregnancy starting before the act, then the soil is full of life before anything sprouts. It enlarges your conception of what a single life is, and the boundary between one persons life and anothers, one persons processes and another persons processes it really blurs that line.
JR: Its true! And the thing about the soil, is what makes the soil nutrient rich is what happened before. Why certain things grow where they grow, the minerals that are in there because of the history of that place, the volcanic ash, or that something died there. You think about wine and terroir; whats in the ground affects what you taste. When I worked in fine dining I asked a waiter, if you didn't know anything about the wine, how would you choose a cheese to pair with it? He said hed pick a cheese from the same place /region, its going to pair with it naturally. There are all these cycles we dont usually identify because who can stop and do that every minute of your life but certainly theyre ever-present.
With the pieces I make I do think: the moisture is what leaves. What changes the look? The one big difference, I mean its one big gelatinous blob, and the big difference is air and moisture.
CQ: What is it made of? What is that gelatinous stuff?
JR: I combined recipes for Silly Putty and DIY bouncy balls. Its clear Elmers glue, with borax and water, and a drop of mineral oil, a baby oil, or sometimes a drop of lemon juice, depending on whether I want some acid. Yeah, its weird. I clean the metal and soak it in vinegar as an acid etch, so its prepared to take the patina. It doesnt show up immediately but its a vinegar, salt and hydrogen peroxide patina. I coat it in that, the acid etch makes it clean enough that the goo sticks. The colour is the rust from the steel, which is accelerated through the patina. Its drawing something out thats already there.
CQ: How long does it take, the process?
JR: A while. I keep them in the fridge to keep the goop from moving. You have to keep it cool enough, you have to keep it controlled. I remember watching some silly crime show where they talked about mummifying something when you keep it at consistent temperature and humidity. So, in my own way, Im mummifying them.
I mean, I dont let them just sit in there. Theyre in a container, with support systems to help them keep their form. My food is all a little too cold! Then when I want to start drying Ill open the container in the fridge, and then gradually over time
At first I was nervous that they would shift, but once theyre dried theres no more liquid to come out. Its a dehydration but with the skin intact. Its a contraction.
I think about how were mostly water, and in terms of life
I had to put my cat down years ago, and instantly her fur felt different. The only thing thats different is that theres no longer energy or animation. Its immediate and so weird.
These pieces age. Theyre not exactly dying, but I do think that as far as moisture and so on, it just goes out into the air. Its still out there. The pieces dont move, but the material moves, in a controlled range. If I didnt control it, it would be just a puddle. I prop it up with a little wax paper; they have to be cold; I can make a slightly firmer mix. I have to push them back into form, sometimes. Sometimes I have to work it a little. I keep them cushioned so they cant move too much until theyre solid.
CQ: So theres a series of photos, but eventually the series stops. Theres a final picture, a point at which they stop changing.
JR: Yeah, no more change. I think if I left it out in the sun it would crack. But all of the moisture is gone, and thats the big shift. Theres still the chemical reaction with the patina thats inside the goo. At first it makes it more gooey, in a weird way, it unsets it and makes it more sticky. But it still is going to continue rusting as long as theres moisture. Thats the process. I mean we all die, eventually, you know. Its part of our cycle. Its like elasticity. Why does our skin wrinkle? I havent done all the research, but I mean, we wouldnt be trying so hard to come up with the fountain of youth.
CQ: I mean theres a billion-dollar beauty industrial complex that is all about how we lose collagen and so on.
JR: Yes, things become something else while they stay the same. Nothing continues forever, but the cycle does.
CQ: The shapes look so organic, even though youre intervening, the shapes change in an organic way. But the material: I mean you have wire, which is I suppose sort of organic, at several steps removed, and thread likewise, but the goo just looks organic, like slime or snot and then amber, then carbon and blackening. So the goo looks the most organic, but what youre saying is its actually the most mediated. Its a very chemical process, and there are several stages of human intervention and shaping.
JR: Right, its a mimicry. But at the same time the process if I didnt intervene it wouldnt adhere. I have to tweak the recipe and so on I have to make the right mix that will do the things I want, for it to become this creature. Ive been working on it for a while to get the mix I want.
CQ: So it looks organic and kind of accidental, and like it has its own kind of agency. But what Im hearing you say is that youre letting it do that, but you shape and mix and support and reshape and cool it. Its mimicry, and the process is highly mediated by you.
JR: I dont think youd know that, looking at it. But for me, its controlled. Thats one of those things, when youre discussing sculpture, how much hand do you have in in? Are you just allowing the materials to do their thing? In cooking, you have to learn to cut with the grain, and not fight it.
CQ: So the material is directing you? You dont impose a vision?
JR: No, I have a vision, and I find the material I need for that vision. I mean, I watched little kids doing DIY videos figuring out how to make their own bouncy balls. I did so much research. The idea drove me to find the material. I know how the material will interact with the shape. But I cant help the fact that in my mind, the wire will always have the element of bone.
CQ: And the thread is the sinew.
JR: Exactly. I always understood that, but you dont really understand until you see it. Like [in my job] having to find specific things when theres nothing specific left [in the tissue]. Its gross. You get over it, but it is a thing. Some of the process [during the medical procedure] is to soften the bones. Which I didnt know before, why they do certain things.
CQ: What relation do the pieces have to each other? I dont want to suggest that theyre parts of a dispersed body, but how do you see them relating to each other.
JR: These ones dont relate to each other. These ones are very self-contained. Theyre part of a larger body of work, but their shapes are closed, even though theyre open. Even swirl, its a closed form even though theres a hole that goes through it.
CQ: So variations on a theme?
JR: There are two others that could theyre different but they could interact with each other, but no. Theyre of a certain family almost. The one with the non-title of lung, its very different from the others. I only sent pictures of that and swirl, but there are others with thread and wire. It depends on their form. The form dictates their ability to interact. Something that encases itself, or encases space, is a closed form of sorts.
CQ: If you were to show these pieces, how to do you imagine people interacting with them in space? With the videos?
JR: I do have a fantasy of a flip book, but its hard, it has to be the same shot in exactly the same place I dont know if the work really lends itself to that. I thought about pieces on the wall. But I know what a gallery is like, theres a lot to see there. The space doesnt allow what you need. If I were to show these pieces, I have a hard time imagining that people would relate them to the photos.
CQ: I mean, people could be directed, there could be explanatory signs, arrows.
JR: But thats why the video started. I thought about the stages. I think it might take away from the images to see the actual object. But I wonder if thats because theyre part of my world and dont belong to anyone else. Theyd be so vulnerable, so small and not seen. And theyd be these dried-up husks.
CQ: Okay, now I want to curate: a series of rooms where people encounter the films, and then youre led to a display case with all these tiny objects.
JR: Like a reliquary! I didnt know if they could even survive outside of the refrigerator. I learned how to control that. Like I had to figure out at what point they become room-temperature safe.
CQ: Its funny because youve said theyre vulnerable, and that you want to keep them safe. But the whole process is about going through this organic cycle, where they become shriveled and blackened, where theyre returning to some other form, ashes to ashes, returning to the earth, but you still dont want to leave them out, leave them exposed. Youre keeping these little desiccated forms, safe and alive in your refrigerator.
JR: Its not that I wouldnt show them in a gallery, but I wouldnt show them if they werent going to be seen. If somebody was just going to be like, whats this tiny little thimble-sized thing? Like if there were a magnifying glass or something, maybe. In the beginning there was no video, just photos, and I wondered, would I have to have a refrigerated platform? But I like the idea of a reliquary.
CQ: It puts them in the context of a Victorian museum of rigid classification.
JR: And of saints! Saints, and their body parts.