26 Nov 2020

Jaanika Peerna discusses her new 'March Solace' works

Unframe London

Jaanika Peerna discusses her new 'March Solace' works

In this exclusive interview, Jaanika Peerna talks to Unframe about her exciting new body of work ‘March Solace Series’. A body of work that is a personal response to the climate crisis.

In March of this year, Jaanika Peerna made an intimate and personal body of work, her ‘March Solace’ series. In this interview, she discusses this new series of work in detail. Unframe had the privilege of speaking with Jaanika during this period. This was just after she had spent some time in isolation, in her studio, making these works. She showed these new works to us and then shared them with the Unframe community in an online talk in June.

‘March Solace’ Series

The new performative drawings on blown-up photographic images of her sculptural works are complex works. They address the issues of climate change. This has been so central to her practice over the last few years. Mirroring the layers of the ice in glaciers, and referencing their slow disappearance. They embody layering of time and personal history. There is a sense of ambiguity to the layering. The new drawings connect intricately to her performative work. Yet these are private pieces, that become like a private grieving on the climate emergency.    

ZF: We are discussing your new drawings, ‘March Solace’ series, an intimate and personal body of work. This is a new series of work that you started just as New York, and the world, went into lockdown. I had the privilege of doing an online studio visit with you in the first week of April, just after you had spent some time in isolation, in your studio, making these works. You kindly showed them to me and I was blown away. Although the concept and idea had been in your head for a while Jaanika, it took this moment, this global trauma, to be the catalyst for you to make this work. Can you talk about the circumstance of how this work came about?

“Some things we never know how they change things…. I have had this body of work in mind for a while, it’s been cooking for over two years. Oddly enough, towards the end of March and April, it grew into something that I’m now ready to show to the world.” JP

JP: What do you do if you are a performance artist, which I have been increasingly recently, working with audiences in different settings and more collectively… And here we now all are in our own space? I was sitting with what I had in the studio here. Having left New York City to go to the quieter Hudson Valley, where I have worked and lived for many years. I started looking at these pieces and looking into how they are made. There are layers and layers of my past actions embedded into the works. And it did require this quiet moment for it to be made. 

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JP: Let’s start though with discussing one of my loves though, this material – Mylar. 

ZF: This is your signature material Jaanika.

JP: Mylar is such a beautiful material – although it is the much hated plastic. Mylar is the brand name in the States for this specific plastic that I use for my drawings. We talk a lot about plastic, and I get a lot of questions asking what kind of environmental artist I am if I use this plastic. But I guess what’s important is not what it is, but what we do with it.

“It reminds me a lot of ice. Ice is one of the central materials in my practice and has been part of my life forever.” JP

I used to love ice skating growing up and I was a promising figure skater in my childhood in Estonia. The mylar reminds me of this ice a lot. 

I have been drawing on mylar for the last 10 years or more and have now completely forgotten about traditional paper. It is a beautiful material that is transparent and bends. I draw on it with pencils, using these very fat pencils that look like oil sticks, but are actually water soluble. If you have the chance to draw a line onto mylar, you always want to do more. It is such a beautiful, sensual experience  – due to its smooth surface and the way the waxy pencil leaves these lovely markings on it. 

So thinking of the steps of how this new work, the ‘March Solace’ series work, was born, first it’s the paper, then it’s the drawing. And then, importantly, it’s water soluble.

“So in the original drawings I make very rhythmic, straight lines. I start with very straight lines with lots of pencils and then let myself fall with them, onto the Mylar, leaving these vertical lines, which then get overwritten by either water or ice.” JP

Jaanika Peerna
‘Inside the Studio Live with Jaanika Peerna’, 2020. Jaanika Peerna. Courtesy of the artist

I start with vertical lines when I am drawing them on the mylar. But it’s already melted by ice or water and then I get into cutting the piece. So it’s a lot of steps, creating structure and then breaking it in different ways. At some point I was just really working on these different shapes by cutting. Having different edges and angles and looking at the front and back of the works. These pieces then move on to become the elements in my big sculptural, wall works. You can see this in a piece I exhibited recently at my solo show at Real Art Ways. 

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Glaciers & Ice Memory

There is a lot of layering in these new works and I’m thinking of ice a lot. This picture of a glacier shows how this comes into the works. Here are the glaciers that have layers and layers of settling, and which are then moving and shifting around. And we are increasingly losing this. We are losing these incredible formations. Scientists have now proven these hold a lot of memory about our ecological time on earth. I’m always thinking of Ice Memory. There is an ice memory project that I am really interested in. I am starting to work with scientists from Stonybrook. Ice holds a lot of memory. So these things are all in my thoughts when I am working on these pieces. 

Wall Sculpture

If we go step by step, what happens with these pieces is that they are installed on the wall to make the sculptures. The pieces then take on endless shapes, depending on how you hang them. It is a fluid form. And then some of  these sculptures get photographed. These photographic images of the sculptures are what I had for  a while. I had these photographs and I knew that there was something about holding these shapes that will never be again, because the sculptural works from walls come down and I never get to install them in exactly the same way. 

Jaanika Peerna
‘Installation shot at Real Art Ways’, 2020. Jaanika Peerna. Courtesy of the artist

I had these photos and these prints – they show sections from very large wall installations. As I was sitting with them, I took my time to ‘hang out’ with the works for extended periods of time during the period of isolation. At some moment I knew that I needed something else to pull these photos together, so they have got these extra layers of drawing on them.

“There’s an ambiguity to them, and I can’t even tell anymore exactly where it is drawn, where it is printed, where it is sculpted, where is shadow, where is line.” JP

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I discover new aspects on them daily, such as today seeing some drawing lines that I totally had hidden from myself. 

ZF: Can we discuss the prints of the original sculptures that are blown up in scale are then printed onto the mylar that they are originally made with in more detail? There is a connection across materials. The use of the mylar heightens the ambiguity between what is the sculpture, what is the drawing, what is the shadow, what is the wall…

JP: Importantly, the photographs are printed on the same material that I use for the sculptures. I use a special version of Mylar which can be printed on. So the photographic images have the same luminosity and make the sounds –  I love the sound. Sound is an important element of the material for me. 

ZF: Another thing that I found really interesting was when you describe the process of you being with the photos for a really long time and almost getting into a meditative state in front of them. You are then waiting for the moment when you interacted with them. You also talked about the ‘tiny distance between the pencil and the paper’ when you finally make the mark. That you were responding to the work itself.

“Already there is so much labour in these works, cutting, drawing, cutting, erasing with water, adding and then it’s still and still in motion. So you sit long enough for it to really settle, so the entire dynamics embed themselves in the print.” JP

JP: And I think that that reflects the times as well, that we have to pull off and really have the time to take in what is actually happening. Not what we are told it is, or what someone else says it is, or what we hope it is – just what it is. This is what I was sensing as I was sitting with the works. 

JP: As soon as I am ready, the lines I make are really sure. I could never draw this line, or plan it out, or know how it would be. It is very quick, very sure, very clear.

“I am thinking about the distance between the tip of the pencil and the surface that I am drawing on.” JP

March Solace detail
March Solace 5 (detail) Jaanika Peerna

It is as minimal as possible. There is no thought, or no plan or no illusion. No even want between the two. It is as direct, as concrete as possible. It is also really fast. The speed is what really cuts off the thinking, but there is something clear and true about it. Once the very fast mark has been made I also sit with it for another sitting, and maybe it needs another mark. This work was done in two actions, separated maybe by two hours in between. There’s no formula really. The requirement is just to be there, to be very  present with it.

‘Screech of Ice’ series

ZF: What’s also interesting to me, with some of your other studio pieces, such as the ‘Screech of Ice’ series, there is external stimulus for that process. For this piece you are listening to the sound of melting ice, which is reminiscent of the glaciers and the erosion that is happening globally. And you are responding to it directly. But with these ‘March Solace’ series pieces, it’s all responding to what’s in front of you. And also responding to your work and to the time. There’s very much this personal, internal movement to it. 

environmental art
‘Screech of Ice 65’, 2019. Jaanika Peerna. Courtesy of artist

JP: Yes. The ‘Screech of Ice’ series is a small drawing series where I am becoming the vessel and taking in the sound of the melting glaciers. I am listening to the recordings of melting and shifting ice. I have never visited any polar regions or been close to glaciers, but really it is just soundscapes you hear. All in all, I then take 4 or 5 pencils, maybe more, into two hands, which is often how I draw.  Within the ‘March Solace’ series works, I create the vertical lines which are also made with two hands at a time, falling with the pencils.

For the ‘Screechs of ice’ series, I take these pencils and an A4 piece of mylar, and listen to the sound, taking it in, registering it and marking it down. The faster the sound flows through me, into the pencil tips, with the circulation, the better the drawings are. As soon as I stop and start thinking, or even looking at the paper –  Often, I don’t even look at the paper – it stops. I turn myself into this bodily machine, letting it go through me and channeling it.

Mark making

ZF: For me, these works are more of a channel because there is nothing between you and the works. You are just communing with the work and channeling it. The scale of the pieces, the fact that they are larger, relating more to the size of the body, they then relate to the gesture of the mark, which is to do with you and your direct involvement with it. 

JP: Yes, these works are bigger – 1 meter / 36 inches wide.  So it is a whole wide movement, and you can’t draw with your finger tips. Even if you draw a tiny mark, it starts from the most central spot in your body. I think in my ballet and figure skating training, there was a lot about starting from the centre, which I didn’t like at the time because I felt it was too orderly.

But here is still something about the whole body, even if you are just moving a finger, and it is very different – it all moves from the centre to leave the mark. It is definitely a whole body gesture. Not just body, but mind and presence and sitting with them. And there is a lot of grief within it too – because I love these massive formations of glaciers and just knowing that there is this absolute devastating loss of them, and that we are drowning ourselves in the rising waters. Even just the image of that is so powerful. 

This also comes through in some of my recent performances, such as ‘Glacier Elegy’ at Real Art Ways earlier this year.

ZF: Just to give context, this performance was part of your solo show at Real Art Ways. 

JP: Yes, and these are the elements I was showing, assembled into a large wall sculpture –  40 or 50 elements here, assembled into this storm-like sculpture. 

ZF: Let’s look at the image of the sculpture with the dancer to give a scale of the sculptural installations. The photographic image on the mylar in your studio that you use for ‘March Solace’ works, that you have then drawn on is a close up of one of these works. 

Jaanika Peerna Interview
‘Installation shot at Real Art Ways’, 2020. Jaanika Peerna. Courtesy of the artist

JP: Yes, some of the photographic sources are from the actual wall installation. There is a vertical sculpture on the left which also uses the same shape. As I cut into them, each piece is becomes original, whilst each one keeps a uniform shape. I make the vertical sculpture from these same elements.

It seems to me to be similar in a way to playing with lego blocks, back when they were basic and elemental – combining and creating new things with the same uniform elements. For exhibitions, they get assembled to new installations.

“There is something about building and then letting go, seeing it in a new context within these sculptural works.” JP

ZF: I like the way you have done that by using them as the source image for the new photographic drawings.They then have this other life that is more historic. It adds to the layerings within these new ‘March Solace’ series pieces.

JP: That was actually a surprise for me when that happened in March, but the works really stand on their own now.

Real Art Ways exhibition

ZF: Let’s look at another of your performance pieces, I think they have a key connection to this new drawing series. Your act of drawing on the works in the studio and this idea sitting with the photograph before you make that mark on the surface. This seems to me like an extension of your performative piece. But it is also a very private act in the studio. For me, I feel that the studio work firmly relates to your performance work. All in all, this is such a key part of your practice.

ZF: Can we also discuss sound in your work because this is such a key element.

JP: For me, the sound is really important in these performances. First, I come into the room and I have two bricks of ice. I am sharing the cold with the audience, and I go around and randomly pick people to share my direct experience. There are long strips of mylar hanging from the ceiling in the gallery space. In this case they are rolled up and there is a whole process of opening them.

Then the next phase of the performance is me inviting you to join, in silence. Whilst some people get involved, some are holding the mylar piece, while others are drawing. It becomes a whole session and I don’t know what is going to happen exactly and I’m always seeing and guiding it.

The more the drawing starts happening, the sound then starts guiding the whole process. People unconsciously tune into the rhythm of it, the rhythm of the pencil on the mylar, guiding the drawing process. People are sharing pencils, creating a whole world. 

Performance Drawing

ZF: What I love is that you can see the performance happening within the space , using the sculpture, drawing and the performance fuse, an extension of the other. This then comes back into this new series of works, where again there is an ambiguity within it, and you are bringing this personal history together as you are engaging with these subjects.

Jaanika Peerna ‘Cold Love’ @ Real Art Ways, installation

JP: They are all in one room together, this is true. During this time, the performance and the exhibition have been documented, eventually, the video projection was displayed next door to the exhibition. So the documentation of the performance became part of the exhibit too.

Importantly, at the end of the performance, the two pieces of ice are holding the two long mylar pieces. While the audience is talking, watching and waiting, the two pieces of ice slowly melt over the course of the evening. The people were still there, and they kept coming back and checking how the melting ice was melting the drawn line. There is a lot of waiting and watching and witnessing there, which connects  as well with what I do in the studio…

Learn more about the March Solace series.

This interview was part of Unframe’s Inside the Studio Live, where Jaanika Peerna invited us into her Hudson Valley studio. Watch the entire interview here –