Regaining order through light, time and space.
Artist Dori Deng’s works are as calculated as they are technical. Meticulously arranged, stemming from her background in theatre and architecture, they turn the ephemeral realm into permanent structure whilst being distinctly underpinned by a sense of weightlessness. Their appearance of simplicity can be deceiving, as Deng’s works are anything but. The artist often challenges herself by working within historical sites, where to put even so much as a nail in the wall could be damaging to the buildings. Inherent to architecture’s naturally evolving state, the artist’s works can be considered systems with algorithms deeply embedded in their processes, from which variations on the outcome are generated. To learn more on how Deng switches chaos into order, I visited her studio inside her Clapton-based home early this summer, where she tells me more about how she oscillates between memory and time, light and structure in her practice.
From growing up in China to now having spent more than fifteen years in the UK, how has this shift in place affected and influenced your practice?
I felt like it has been a process from chaos to a form of order. South China in the 80s was very lively and busy, as it was the beginning of the economic rising. It was unease and chaotic, it didn’t feel calm for me. Living in the UK, from studying to working, has given me more clarity and system. Perhaps that’s why I am very into the action of categorising and systemising.
I was already very much interested in the use of projection and performance before the BA course. At that time, I felt a bit alone in exploring these elements, because I didn’t know anyone else doing similar experimentations. It was the heritage of the course and the tutors introduced me to the world of Expended Cinema, which made me ‘find my community’, in a sense. There is so much to learn from the last generation of artists, and so much more to go further from what they have already achieved.
Theatre is an ephemeral, temporary, and imagined world which you have had access to even before graduating, working under the wing of opera and theatre director Netia Jones. Do you implement the use of theatrical equipment in your work, such as projectors or colour gels amongst many others?
Definitely! I was extremely lucky as a young artist who worked with light and performance at the time, to be able to work with Netia, who used projection predominantly in opera. We did so much experiments with large scale projectors from theatre spaces to unique outdoor site conditions. We projected on Sizewell’s nuclear power plant for an opera too! The 10 years’ experience of using projection in theatre has no doubt enriched my technical understanding of the medium. I also think that the ephemeral theatre realm has impacted my understanding of time in relation to space. Later on, this understanding became more interesting when I started to research and make site-specific works in architecture.
Having previously worked in the field of architecture, where projects start in two dimensions and work their way up to four dimensions, does your process undertake a similar logic and expansion?
The process of my work has a strong link to the logic of architecture. Typically, architectural process starts from the horizontal site plan, floor plan, then, the vertical expansion of elevation and section. Finally, it applies the material as a skin and shell. There is a distinct 2D – 3D process, but the most fascinating aspect is the expansion to 4D – time and habitation. An architectural space becomes alive from that moment when time starts to make changes to it. When a building starts to envelope the light in a specific way, that gives us a sense of time and that sense makes us inhabit within, as a user. Similarly, my process always begins from drawing aerial view plans or notations, then progresses to isometric view diagrams and maquette model studies with structure and light. When it is ready, I work in-situ on site with the actual architecture, materials and dancers to construct the full body. From theatre to architecture, it has been a very interesting journey for me to learn and investigate from the ephemeral realm to permanent structure.
Translucent, transparent or semi-transparent material components such as fishing wire are frequently used in your practice, alongside solid materials such as brass or steel. Are you interested in creating a sense of weightlessness, even with materials that are often associated with being heavy?
The sense of weightlessness is always what I am trying to achieve when choosing materials and fabricating structures. I used acrylic, colour gels and translucent film a lot in the early experimentations. Even now, I am using metal structures, which play the role of adding a contrast to the weightlessness of the projected light.
You consistently use, adapt and manipulate light in your practice. How does it react to the architectural space in your works and particularly in your ‘termination’ series?
‘Termination Series’ is a collection of experimentations about the structure and temporality of light – to visualise the light travelling through and within specific architectural structures. The series also investigated the passing and tracing of time in relation to architectural space. In this process, light is there to trigger, indicate, and to outline the experimentations.
Considering your practice surrounds ideas of site-specificity throughout architectural spaces, logistically, this manner of working can be quite limiting. Can you tell us more about your theory regarding ‘the embarrassment of ephemeral things’ and how you deal with these restricting environments?
Site conditions of any architecture are always challenging to work with, unlike a perfectly facilitated white cube gallery space. In the past two years, I have increasingly worked with historical architecture, it is super challenging because most of these sites don’t allow for alternations to be made, not even to pin a nail! This condition actually pushes me to think differently in manipulating my materials. I started to use the natural gravity as a tool. This negotiation with the architecture became a conversation between the space, the materials and myself. I got to learn to not only work with the architecture, but also use what it provides you. Architecture then became part of the materials, not just the space to shell the work.
In both theatre and architecture, there is a sense of meticulous planning and execution, with no room for error. How do ideas of precision and calculation come into your practice?
I guess that’s just part of the nature of me. I like system and categorising, but that does not mean there is no room for error. A calculated system can be an advanced platform for variation and chance to happen. John Cage’s indeterminacy music theory is the perfect example. My end goal is not a calculated product, but a system with algorithms to generate its own variations.
Previously you introduced your termination series. Can you tell us more about this body of work and the precise calculations of weight, distance, light, rhythm, body movements, and even projection slides involved in its realisation?
As mentioned earlier, the‘Termination Series’ is a series of site-specific light installation that intend to visualise the journey of how light travels within architectural spaces. The series creates compositions with light and structure that physically reacts to the architecture; it also composes temporal rhythm to the architecture. That’s why I chose historical architecture or sites which have an interesting urban context for this. As well as using projected light and metal structures to make the compositions, I also utilise carousel projectors in some pieces in the series. A carousel projector with an auto-timer function is a very unique product, made during the 70s, and which at the time produced ‘moving projected images’ which transitioned to what we have now, the digital projector. For one piece in this series, I used metal blocking tape and colour gel to hand make each single slide film. They were all just one line that thinner than 1mm, but each slide projected on different positions on the metal structure. So, I could create moving light sequences with a pure lamp! This is ideologically different from a modern data projector in which the pixels transfer data. It is very important for me that each component I use has purity, from concept to physicality. As the series keeps on developing, I have started to introduce gravity and daylight changes as elements too. They are all temporal materials, and they are all part of the architecture. The experimentation so far in ‘Termination Series’ has led me to a deeper investigation of memory and time in architecture.
I’ve noticed your works are very minimalist in design and use of colour sparingly, and this is also the case with your Instagram curation. How do you choose a colour to implement it in your works, and what is its function in your practice?
I think the colour is a complex system! That’s why I only use colour as indication, it’s a tool but not a subject in my work. For instance, in the ‘Termination Series, Work No. 2’ (2014), two threads of projected lines were shot from opposite directions onto the same metal structure, functioning as an indicator of the two different light sources. I chose one bright orange and one bold yellow for the projection gels, so the audience could see two colours in one genre of warm tone to distinctively mark their own journeys of light traveling through the metal structure. FYI, I only ever wear black clothes! Lol…
Audiences are constantly shifting and evolving, such is the case particularly in theatre. Do you use any special ‘tricks’ to encourage your audience to flow?
I was so curious to question audiences’ position and role all the time when I worked in theatre and when I performed years ago. I think that the specific focal points in theatre space and the free float performances in open spaces, both have a lot to explore and experiment. The space and form in between these are even more interesting! My theatre background definitely made me consider the relationship between performer and audience more carefully. When I used to make performance collaborations with Meta Drcar, we discussed this relationship in every single piece. We had to, because we are all part of this event within the specificity of time, place and people. Simply, we couldn’t create something for an open space without considering where the audience was going to be. Critically, I have found that a lot of the performances in museum and gallery spaces nowadays have a lack of consideration of the relationship to its audience. On the poster, they often only show you the performer and the space; but in reality, you have to watch it with another 20+ people blocking your view. These are two different scenarios.
That’s right, I am a big fan of 70s avant-garde! The groups of dancers, composers and artists at the Judson Church Dance Theatre in New York at that time really has pushed the methodology and ideology of performative, time-based forms to a new level. Choreography method can start with notation drawings, dance can be purely about the body in relation to space without narrative; music can be made by a set of instructions then operated by chance (indeterminacy music); music also can be constructed by any sound, noise or even silent… These are still controversial to the majority nowadays, but they managed to start the experiment almost half a century ago. Two years ago, I had the chance to watch the reproduction of a rare piece of Cunningham – ‘Walkaround Time’ (1973). A piece that was made 40 years ago, which is still shockingly futuristic, thought provoking to the audiences now. I can name a few people who I pay a lot of respect to: Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti and Robert Morris, Merce Cunningham & John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earl Brown…
I was lucky to have seen a work in progress at your studio composed of suspended ceiling and floor panels with central open cuts. How will you take this maquette one step further in the close future?
This is an early experiment which hasn’t yet formed into any shape. It is something that I am working towards… investigations of a process of intensity and continuity. It is also part of the experiment of exposing the light source as a gesture. Everything is in a loose form and pretty experimental right now. Processing the unknown into some form of order is always exciting for me!
You always seem to hide the source of light in your works, which makes them appear almost organic in their structure. Is this something you’ll keep up in your future works?
I am always negotiating the position and the identity of the light source in the work. In the past, when I made performances with my collaborator Meta, we tried to keep the light source as part of the ‘set’ or ‘installation’. Especially, we mostly used a data projector, so it was appropriate for it to be part of the performative aspect. When I am making site-specific light installations now, the pieces relate so much to the architecture, plus I use a wide range of carousel projectors including Soviet duo-slide projectors, mini-Source Four and Profile Lamps (theatre lamps) and also data projectors. Therefore, for spatial and technical reasons, I chose to hide them or blend them in with the architecture. In the new series that I am working on right now, the light source is going to be very visible, it will be a gesture with its own right, I hope. Which I am excited to try out!
Words by Vanessa Murrell