Shelley Theodore: ‘describing something that isn’t easy to describe or easy to say’

Published in Photomonitor, December 2013.


Shelley Theodore, ‘Madame Boussieux Looks’, 2013, Super 8 mm transferred to digital video, 41 sec (looped), Courtesy the artist.

Shelley Theodore was one of the artists selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2014. Theodore, whose practice includes drawing, collage, photography and film, graduated with a BA Fine Art from Goldsmiths in 1995, and an MA Fine Art from Camberwell College of Art in 2012. Her work has appeared on a number of group shows including Jerwood Drawing Prize, Jerwood Space (London) in 2012. Theodore was selected for New Contemporaries on the basis of two video works: ‘Madame Boussieux Looks’, 2013 and ‘Silent (black and white)’, 2012.

View Shelley Theodore’s work on Vimeo.

Tell us about ‘Madame Boussieux Looks’.

‘Madame Boussieux Looks’ is a very short piece that came about over a number of years. I’m particularly interested in observation and looking. It’s a way for me to connect with my own experience – the experience of what catches the eye or of what enters consciousness.  My work is a dialogue about that, and ultimately it means that viewers will be engaged in a similar dialogue. I’ve been making films for quite a long time. They’re always very small films; using a Super 8 camera. I’ve made a number of films which I’ve left for quite a number of years while I’ve got on with other work.

More recently, I had this idea that I’d like to start using my camera again. I’ve spent summers in France for the past eight years and during these visits I got to know an elderly woman who lives opposite me. She has this fantastic house with a window on the first floor and this huge door. She has a ritual about opening the window at a particular time of day. She either has a cat there or she breaks bread to feed birds. The first film I made of her at the window is ‘Silent (black and white)’ – which was selected for New Contemporaries but is not shown at the ICA. I filmed from my window, looking across at hers.

‘Madame Boussieux Looks’ came about because I began observing her more often, and noticed that she has a ritual at the front door. She opens the door at a particular time, and looks out. I filmed her quite a bit but I managed to get one particular sequence which is her opening the door and really having a good look at something and then turning around, and closing the door behind her. It was this feeling very much of the inside of the house: her as an elderly woman on her own, coming out of the house, having this moment of looking, and then returning inside.

The film is also about you looking at her, your observation of her. Did she know she was being filmed by you?

Not at that moment but she got to know that I was and was quite happy for me to do it. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable about showing the work without her knowing. I know her quite well now.

When I first looked at the work I thought you had used found footage. It’s because of the Super 8 film. We’ve become accustomed to artists now appropriating twentieth century found footage; filmed from Super 8. You actually have a Super 8 camera, and do all the filming yourself?

Yes. The camera is no longer manufactured but you can still buy Super 8 film. I use a Bolex (I think mine was made in the ‘70s). It’s a simple little camera and that’s the beauty of it really. My mother gave it to me, and I’ve had it for a long time. I’m not really preoccupied with technicalities but if something works I like to use it. My Super 8 films are transferred to digital.

The idea of passing time appears to be embodied by you in the process of making work. Slow, considered, close looking is such an important aspect of your practice.

I have a very slow, laborious process of working. I like to work in a close relationship to my immediate environment. But it’s only through time and careful looking that I will develop a relationship with it. I’m interested in how I notice things. My work is about noticing something and then also, through time, about observing change and my own relationship to it. At some point I decide that I’m going to do something with a building or place that I’ve noticed, and then will go back and photograph it. It’s quite a slow process. I like to notice things that could be overlooked. My work is about noticing what isn’t at the forefront.

The films that you make are all silent?

Yes. It’s not that I’m not interested in sound. But observation, which is so important to how I make the work, is a silent activity.

The relationships between elderly women and domestic space appears as a theme. In recent work female figures are present whereas in earlier work the human subject is absent (although a human presence is implied). As viewers we might project our own narratives or associations onto surfaces such as lace curtains.

I think in some ways homes are embodiments of memories. This is not something that I’ve always been conscious about. I’m probably only thinking more consciously about it now. The lace curtains in the pair of photographs called ‘Windows’ (2012) are quite beautiful but they’re also about dying and decay – the curtains are yellowing. It’s a little bit associative of Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Recently I have been thinking more about characters. At the moment, I’m filming another elderly women who I’ve got to know. She is actually my neighbour and has a particular ritual at noon every day, and around how she leaves the house. I really like being in my own space and then connecting with these events. Everyday repetitive events or rituals are transformed into memories and return like memories. Over time, through time, something is experienced and returns.

What is different for you about working with film as opposed to photography?

There were no people in my work before, and that’s a big change for me. I feel that the new film work has opened up my practice a lot. Perhaps in the past I was excluding the figure because I was deliberately focusing on places.

The repetitiveness and brevity of ‘Madame Boussieux Looks’ is interesting: the film is 41 seconds in length and it also loops.

There is that sensation of repetition in the work. There is also a feeling, with the looping, of a space outside of time. It’s evocative of a process. The short sequence of Madame Boussieux’s look could mirror in some way the process of thinking about or remembering something. The emphasis is on her looking: she comes outside, she looks, and turns around. At some level it’s an observational piece about the everyday. But it’s not just that for me. I’m not interested in documenting the everyday as such. I’m more interested in working with how, within the everyday, experiences impact on life in the moment of experiencing something.

It’s interesting that you say you are not focusing on documenting the everyday. Your work is not about documentary?

I’m not documenting social facts or phenomenon although there is something about the process which is methodical and which is in some way documenting. But what I am trying to find is a way of describing something that isn’t easy to describe or easy to say. This is about an experience of looking or remembering a moment. While my process is methodical the actual work is not about that.

Is there anything you are thinking about in terms of developing your practice, following on from being selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries?

I’d really like to develop my film-based practice more. It’s great that film-based work was selected. It’s been in the background a bit and I want to bring it to the forefront.


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