A conversation with Sarah K Williams

by Eve O’Shea

Sarah K Williams, Dependable Shapes, 2020

Multi-disciplinary artist Sarah K Williams talks about the work made at her recent Satellite residency at the NARS Foundation at Governor’s Island. Discussed are the tools and methods of her art practice as well as the work in the exhibition Holding Breath.


EOS: How do you relate the physicality of the sculpture you make to the video which you then make from it, or, how does that piece change once you make it and it becomes a performance or a film?  Because the texture, color and the shape is so important to the piece itself. And then when it is translated to another medium, I’m curious about how it changes or how you see it changing.

SKW: This piece and the show is basically the first time that I’ve been thinking about it exclusively living in video form — as a live piece, not something that was completely composed as this continuous performance, but just broken off in old clips and then edited. I’m surprised how different it is looking at a space and looking at both bodies and objects through a lens versus just as a composition of a full piece, which is how I’m always looking at things. So that became really apparent. But I wasn’t looking at it as just existing within this frame, and I learned a lot by doing that. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do it in black and white, but I can’t bring myself to exclude color from the stuff that I do.

This is — to me — comes a little bit from the work that I’ve done in theater. I like the confusion that a material can have, from afar, if you don’t think about it as sculpture or something that you might come to think about as a sculptural object or as a process of decay. You have this assumption that it will withstand a certain amount of time. Like it’s a precious object and should be protected for generations – in its best version. But because it’s not that, it’s this ephemeral thing that’s built for one specific purpose, and I know that it’ll change forms, like, after it’s served the purpose of that performance, it’s gone, I don’t have to work with these really permanent materials. But I want it to look permanent. I like that challenge. I like building something for a specific set of tasks or purposes. I like thinking of them as having a lifespan. And then I like being able to manipulate the material in a way that serves that specific role.

I mean, those pieces, I wanted them to look very solid, and, and natural in some way, having a certain weight to them, and I often needed them to be cut very easily. So, you know, I was building them out of materials, to kind of make it challenging to look at. I mean, it’s related to the magic of theater: you know how far the distance from which something is going to be viewed, which in turn determines how much time you put into painting the outside of it.

Still from “Holding Breath” exhibition at the NARS Foundation, October 9 – 30, 2020 

Selfishly, it’s also nice to have control over how something is viewed. You’re not just making a sculpture or painting and putting it in a space and hoping for the best. You know, like, people can walk up to it or not. But if it’s for a performance, or it’s for video, you will only be able to see the piece from “this angle” for “this amount of time.”

EOS: So you have control for how it will be perceived. I was also wondering what was the role of color and texture are in your work — because you have a very specific palette. How do you make this decision?

SKW: Texture, I’m totally obsessed with. It takes precedence over narrative and all these other things. I just I get distracted by color and texture a lot. And they become really, really driving forces. I mean, I guess it depends on the piece — I do have things that I’m attracted to. I mean, I think I’m generally going for something texture-wise that’s a cross between natural and familiar but slightly unfamiliar. Because it’s not completely an unfamiliar world, in my mind, it’s not even strange, it’s more like, “something is a little bit off.” It’s kind of hard to pinpoint. I mean, I think I got a lot of comments about “grossness.” I don’t see it that way, but I’m happy to get that kind of response — kind of unsettling.

Repetition is also really important for me, sometimes in a performative way. But always in the way that I make things generally — doing repetitive things in a repetitive way. So that comes into texture because it’s like, am I gonna go out and try to gather texture? I want to make many horrible, tiny components and then put it together.

The palette is more intuitive, I don’t know. I mean, I know the colors that I gravitate towards — I know that red and green are my favorite colors together. I have an aversion to purple; I don’t know why. It can’t seem to ever make it work. I avoid it. Yeah, I mean, it needs to be a combination. I guess I just have a sort of rules for myself. Like, there needs to be some sort of clarity versus muddiness combination? Not too synthetic looking?

EOS: Right — I also had a question about how you see humor in relation to your work.

SKW: I mean, it’s definitely a phenomena in my work. I think of it more in terms of absurdity. I think for myself, it’s dangerous to try to do something or create something that has humor in it or that’s funny. It’s not a comfortable territory for me. Yeah, but it certainly does play a part in things.

I guess lately, it’s just a good way for me to explain uncomfortable things. Oh, my God — everything is so absurd. If you step back a little bit, and take a look at things, it gets even more absurd! I think the combination of absurdity and frustration is that one that you’re observing. It’s not like really humor. But it is important to me when I’m working with something that veers into the absurd, or possibly has humor to it, to do it in a very ominous, very serious way — to do it with complete conviction. It’s a lot easier for me to direct other people to do that than to perform it myself. I want all the actions to be handled with the same attitude.

EOS: I was thinking about the piece you’re making for the performance that was in the show — you made the sculpture able to be cut in half. There’s a lot of that when I look at your work; there’s a lot of pieces that have a distinctly different exterior and textural element and then an interior that is different, or it’s a surprise. I’m wondering what the relationship between the exterior and interior is.

SKW: Is it the reveal of having something surprising on the inside? Yeah. Insides, pits, I love seeds, that kind of slash out, and are messy, but maybe useful. Yeah, I keep going back to that. Sometimes I feel like I am making the same piece over and over and over again. Haven’t I gotten it? Like, move on! But being around kind of unwieldy pieces that can be torn into pieces keep coming back. I think I realize that a lot of it bodily, I mean, sometimes they look kind of like some sort of recurrent net, or something. They’re also I think, bodily organs or whatever. I mean, I’m very inspired by the culinary world — that is a strong influence. I think that these techniques, of changing the makeup of a thing or, or changing the state of a thing, these different processes are a recurring thing. I just want to I want to boil everything, I want to freeze everything. I love this studio so much, but it’s not a great place to catch things on fire, or to freeze things.

When I look at things that I’ve seen done in the culinary world, I feel like I have no excuses not to make interesting stuff, because I don’t need to eat my work. Like, it doesn’t have to taste good. So what’s my problem? It’s gonna be way harder if it looks amazing and it has to be, not just edible, but actually delicious.