Samantha Thole is a Dutch performance and ceramic artist. She is interested in women’s role in art among other things. Her work often relates to classical art and reconstructs it.
You often work with performance. What attracts you to this medium?
I never made the deliberate choice of becoming a performance artist. I also don’t see myself as such. I am a very material artist. My main interest has always been painting and the sculpture in the most medium specific framing. I see performance as a medium, as a material with its own history, contexts and texture. I think that a good performance is very fragile; it’s a unique moment in time and space. The lines are very thin. Within the contemporary art domain, once you agree that this will be the framing then you have the ability of making time, space and a happening; a work of art. I think performance is very poetic, fragile and valuable. That is something that I always want to include in my work. I think it’s very important to create something of value which also is very special for the audience.
When did you realize that the female body can be used as a tool in your art?
I never viewed it as female body, I see it as my body and I’m a woman. After all the research I did and all the work, I’m not an academic, I’m not an intellectual, I’m very much an artist. Art is my field of work. I think the best and most honest perspective that I can offer as a conversation partner, a visual conversation partner, is my own. So, then I never imply that I am objective. I think that is I’m telling somebody a story for example; it’s the most interesting for that person to hear my own experiences because that is a line of communication that works between humans. So that’s why I always view it as my own; a 34-year-old, Western woman, 1.86m. All these things, that’s just what I am so that’s the context in which I work. Also, I would never say tool, I would say medium.
In the performance I object I subject that you did in collaboration with Mette Sterre you play with the way actions are read on female bodies and their culturally ascribed identities through fighting. What does this performance comment on?
It grew very organically. I was in a dining hall with a lot of artists in the European Ceramic Workcentre and we all ate together in the evening. One of my friends is American and she was talking about the movie The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I viewed the Scandinavian version of that movie, which I also find very shocking and horrible. So, she’s this hacker, also very empowered, and a bit slapstick, and she is horribly raped, but she records it. Then she takes revenge, she ties up the man who raped her and writes pig on his forehead or chest. Then she also threatens him that if he ever removes it, then she will find him again. We were discussing this scene from this movie and my friend said that her mother found it so shocking that a woman would do that, which for us was also very strange because the raping of the woman was not found shocking but the woman taking revenge was very shocking. I find it very interesting how aggression or violence is not what you expect from women’s behaviour. We are expected to be nurturing and caring and soft. So that is what I find very interesting about the fighting element and in this specific performance we were thinking about WWF wrestling that is the American way and is very over the top, and very slapstick. Also, it works with recognisable personas and it’s a performance. Part of what I do with Mette is about performing an identity. It’s interesting to see women fight, it’s also interesting that they chose the fight and that they are staging it. So that’s what we were thinking about when we designed this fight.
You collaborate with Mette Sterre again in Double Helix, making a Golem. In that performance you again depict a struggle. What attracts you to depict conflict between women?
I never thought about that performance as a conflict between women. We were thinking about a creator and something that is created. I always saw them as sexless because it was part of what we thought about, that as women you’re this natural biological creator. You haven’t done anything, but you have this whole factory to create life, which is very interesting when you are an artist as well. Golem is to make something inanimate animate, to give life to something, which you do as an artist. So, it had more of an artistic context. Then also I think it’s a very traditional theme that something that is created turns against the creator. Of course, we also played with it by making it sound like mud wrestling between women in the invitation. That was already a line of thinking in our previous performance inspired on WWF wrestling. We drew quit a crowd. It was very dramatic, it was very nice but just not what people expected when they saw mud wrestling.
Can you reflect on your collaborations with Mette Sterre? Why do you choose to work together? How does it enrich your artistic practice?
I collaborate with people more often but never this literally. I think the best part of collaborating is that you add to each other’s skills and knowledge. Together with Mette it works well. We think the same enough to have a dialogue, we also think differently enough to surprise and add something to each other practice.
In Temple Guardians you apply temporary tattoo of Japanese statues to guard an intimate place on your body. What do you want to say with this work?
It’s always difficult especially with visual arts to specify what you want to say through it. In art and I think also in life the creation and determination of value is something that I’m very much interested in. Maybe it also relates to be a complete atheist, so value and meaning need to come from somewhere. It’s not a spiritual quest but I was always very interested in what makes something work, especially in contemporary art. What I also find very interesting about performance for example. It’s very general to talk about the Asian way of thinking, but when I did ceramics for example, I also did elaborate research on tea ceremonial utensils. I’m very interested in other ways of thinking that are not native to me. The world is a big place and you should get as much as possible out of it. I made the guardians more often. The Temple Guardians are very strong and maneristic, their facial features and their muscles are very much exaggerated because they are placed in front of the temple to ward of evil and ignorance. Some things are also very fragile, which is not the same as weak. Also, for yourself, when you are a young girl, and you’re growing up to be a woman, it’s good to be aware sometimes that some things are worth protecting. So also, when you see sex online for example it’s all very hard and very rude and the guardians are just meant to protect yourself. It’s always good to be shielded from evil and ignorance.
In Wounded Amazon you assume a classic pose in which women were depicted since antiquity. You are also body painted black. What does this combination achieve?
I am very much interested in antiquity. I find ancient Greek civilization very interesting because already what we know about it, their stories of history were already a mix of history and myth. Myth was imbedded and presented as history. The Greeks legendarily won from the Amazons, which was always told very proudly. Ancient Greece is very male, it was a phallic society and the Amazons never really existed as far as we know, but it was a mythical tribe. They were only women and would only meet men if they summoned them to have sex. Then they would have some children and they would go to their tribe and the male children would be exiled. The Greeks spoke of them in an admiring manner because the Amazons were very strong and independent. They had quit a peaceful rule because they were so strong. Then at some point there was a big battle and the Greeks were victorious. So as an ode to this victory, in Ephesus, which is now Turkey but was ancient Greece, there is a temple of Artemis with five statues of wounded Amazons on top. Obviously, it is also a warning for women “Don’t be to strong, don’t be too independent, because you know how it’s going to end.” It’s a bit sick to have your best sculptors depict wounded women and put them on top of a temple. These statues were bronze and brightly coloured and then you would have Roman copies. We know only of three types of those five sculptures made by the best sculptors of Greece. So, the Romans copied it and of course made it in white marble, again brightly coloured, but those colours were lost through time. Then we have the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that shaped our view of antiquity as white marble. So, I found it very interesting to make it black flesh as a continuation of this mutation of the same theme which is morphing through time and telling.
In the collage series Disjecta Membra you combine vintage female nudes with Greek vases. Is this a comment on historic objectification of the female body?
Yes, a bit. It’s about objectification in history in general. Disjecta Membra means scattered limbs. Initially it was meant for poetry and it is an archaeological term for when a pot is broken, and different pieces go to different collections. Sometimes one pot can be scattered over five continents. For that series I used seven basic shapes of pottery of utensils. I am making it into a series of etchings now and it’s going to be as much as possible one on one as the original object. If you are interested in the development of naturalism in images it is interesting to know that Greek vases go from geometric and then you have this development and in the end it’s the closest naturalistic depictions as we know it from older societies. So first it is geometric and then you start seeing people. It’s usually honouring the dead. The depictions of the original vases feature domestic scenes that are no photographs, because they are filtered, and manmade, literally made by men. So, all the depictions of women on Greek vases, just like the Amazon sculptures, are very normative and focus on how women should behave. They are always nicely placed in a domestic scene or as women that would be social companions and they all had their frameworks, so all these images were very small social construction. So that’s what I find very interesting about the Greek vases. This is connected to be an artist and knowing your classics in image and sculpture and knowing your myths. Now it’s almost lost but since the Romantic times proper artists should know their classics. Female nudity always had a part in art, always depicted by men and was always for upper class men. But when photography was developed it was first a tool for painters, so they could make nude studies for their paintings. But when photography properly developed then also it became a mass medium and when print was made accessibly you got the pornographic images as well. The images I used are cut out from those early erotic photographs which were initially meant for artists. It’s also very strange that our views of history don’t make perfect sense, that we think the way we think, some things are quite random. Those early erotic images of women are called French Postcards and depicted poor women. The body of proper women was deformed because of the corsets and they would never pose naked, so they were usually Roma girls and very poor girls, whose body would not be deformed by corsets because that wouldn’t be very good for the images. So, I gathered all these elements in my work.
You often cite classical art as source of inspiration and present it next to your work. Is this an attempt to inscribe your self in history?
No. But that’s a good one. I’m going to borrow that. No, absolutely not. Not that I’m so modest. There are many reasons why I do this. Female sexuality and classical antiquity were not the themes in my work when I started out as an artist. But in the end, through all the struggles and the developments that you make I think “This is my life, so I’m going to do the things that I love most, which is classical antiquity and female sexuality!” I’m going to make it work because I understand it. It makes sense. I find it very interesting in contemporary context “What is the position of an artist?” A lot of us, I think, grew up with a more romantic view of the artist as the individualistic genius. Just speaking or reading Latin is also very connected to high culture. If you’re properly cultured then you’ll get it, if you’re not cultured you don’t get it. So that’s what I find very interesting about antiquity. It’s nice to look at a society which is so much older because there is this distance and we also have big gaps in our knowledge. That makes it very interesting for me and also a lot of my work makes it into something narcissistic or an ego document. I try to connect to something bigger. Mainly because it’s so far back, it gives a very healthy perspective on the things that we do now.
During the performance Drawing Room, you are body painted white and draw stocking lines and lingerie on your body with black paint. The intimate and dark atmosphere of the gallery suggests a peep show. What do you aim to achieve with your actions in combination with the ambience?
Very often I display sexuality quite explicit, which I never find shocking because for me it’s very natural. I’m not a big fan of his work but I saw Erwin Olaf once on Zomergasten and he said that “Pornography has the monopoly on genitals as an image”, and I thought “That’s true!” It’s very loaded, it’s very taboo, it’s very private which is very strange because we most definitely all have it in one way or the other. In classical antiquity there were roof ornaments in shapes of the vulva because it would mean fertility. So, I’m always very surprised about how taboo sexual expression is. Although the ambience reflects peep shows, sex shows, and other strange, dark, hidden places like in a swinger’s club, but it’s very much a contemporary art context for me. Those worlds never merge. Sometimes I also feel a bit sad when I see women behave and dress as they think a man would think they’re sexy because it looks very strange and it’s not like a Geisha with a silk kimono or something very elegant, it’s usually very plastic and very poor. I don’t understand why elegance doesn’t get more attention. Or it’s fetish like latex or fake latex or you have the underwear with the girdles already attached and it’s all plastic and very shitty. Or you have a little tongue in cheek like Marlies Dekkers, but still I think it’s very poor for something that is very nice and is a part of everybody’s experience.
You often use nudity covered with body paint in your performances. What attracts you to dressing your body in this way?
I think it’s because I’m actually a painter. The whitening in that performance was done with gesso so it’s a blank canvas. It’s trying to be as neutral as possible to get to the basics of what matters. So also, when I make a costume, which is not very often actually, I think I’m naked more often than I make a costume because I think that’s what it’s about. That’s essential and has the effect of abstraction. I’m also very surprised that for example Vali Export, the 60s and 70s performance artist did things much heavier than I would do. What I do is not meant to be shocking. For me when I tell it from my perspective, this is my body, so that’s why I present it as such. That’s also for example why I do still wear underwear. Not wearing underwear could be experienced as shocking which is never my intention. I don’t want the attention to completely focus on the fact that I’m naked.
Why do you use the female body as the sight of provocation in your work?
That’s a bit the same. I find it very difficult because I don’t intent to provoke. I find it very normal. I don’t come from a family of nudists for example, but it was very normal to walk around the house without your clothes. So, for me it’s also very normal. I also think that the world is very big and very confusing. The only thing that I own is my body that makes me really entitled and I carry it with me. I’m also entitled to use it in whatever way I want to. But of course, if you’re an artist and you have a dialogue with another party, you always must keep in mind that they also have a framework and context. So, I think it would be silly to be oblivious and surprised that somebody is shocked. I am aware that they might be shocked but I’m really trying to take provocation out of my work because there may be another story that I think is more important to tell.
Does this relate to feminism?
I think it’s a very difficult subject. I think it’s difficult because it’s been used by so many people in so many ways. I never meant it to be a feminist statement but it’s very natural. For women it’s a bit different than men because men are a bit more privileged, they get much more acceptance, so in that way I think it’s completely feminist. I think you should be able to do what you want to do.
Has feminism helped shape who you are? Is it useful for your creative process?
I live in the Netherlands and its now 2017. It’s 100 years that women are aloud to vote and it’s also 100 years since the art movement De Stijl emerged. I find it very surprising that De Stijl gets more exposure and exhibitions, however I haven’s seen much in the media or heard about exhibition about women’s right to vote. I think that I live in a country where a lot of things are possible that wouldn’t be a 100 or 150 years ago. It doesn’t mean that we’re there yet, but I’ve benefited tremendously from all the feminists because I’m not married, I’ve had a good education, I think I’m not going to have children, I can vote, and I can do things freely. In that way feminism most definitely privileged my life. I don’t know if it shapes my creative process. Maybe it’s also an obstacle? This connotation also prevents me from being neutral in my work. In that way it can be an obstacle as well. Although it’s one of the themes that I create my work around, how women profile themselves. Eventually when you are a creative person everything helps your creative process.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Yes, if somebody would ask me I would most definitely do that. I’m sometimes also surprised that I’m 34, that I was born in 1982 and I feel that a lot of women of my generation do not call themselves a feminist because there’s a certain image attached to that which they don’t like, which makes it very difficult to be feminine as well as feminist. I also read a lot of female artist say very clearly that they are not a feminist because it would put them in that framework. I think that’s a very negative development. Women and men are still not treated as equal. Women and men are not the same, but you still have the right to be different and have the same value. That also goes for people with a different social and economical background. I think it’s very important to work towards equality. I’m also very worried that some things that we thought would never happen again, like a bad on abortion, are happening in Poland and Spain and Trump is doing strange things with Pro Life. So, I think we all still have a very long way to go, and we must protect what we already established because it’s frighteningly fragile. So, it’s important to talk about it and not suffocate in alternative facts.
What is feminism for you?
For me it’s equality. It’s having the same rights and having a choice yourself. I also think you have a choice in presenting yourself as an object of lust. It’s very tricky because for example I have not come across many cases of voluntary prostitution, but I think you should be able to do that if you want. It’s not anti feminist. If you chose to become a plumber, that should be ok. That’s the freedom of choice. I’m not very much into contemporary culture but I’m thinking of Emma Watson who did this interview and she had a cleavage or something that accentuated her breasts, I think in the United Nations she is also a spokesperson for feminism, and she got all this critique for showing her breasts. I find it very strange because you are still framing somebody. Why can you not just be? In the end I think feminism is equality and liberty. It’s quite utopic but I think you should be able to just be.
Do you think that artists could still create good work if there was nothing to provoke with?
Yes. I am not going with the Christian flow that you need to suffer to be productive. I think you can do very strong things. I think you can also make splendid, beautiful art about glaciers. I mean, if you’re talking about intense. Tectonic plates that’s intense! I don’t think you are limited to struggle or to that kind of confrontation.