IN CONVERSATION WITH MARIA POSITANO
Megan Elliott, April 2020
Maria Positano is an artist currently based in Oxfordshire, UK. She graduated with a BA in Fine Art from City & Guilds of London Art School in 2018 and has been selected and shortlisted for a number of awards, solo and group exhibitions, including: The Clyde & Co Art Award Scheme (2018), I Tread on the Steps You Left me, The Rectory Projects (2019) and The Potion Room, Subsidiary Projects (2020).
Positano's work arises out of her intimate yearning to reach an understanding of the structures and dynamics that constitute the necessity to make - an exploration which feels particularly poignant at present as we figure out how to navigate our new realities. In this interview, we delve into our own motivations for making and Positano shares how she has adapted and responded to feelings of isolation.
Maria Positano, Bring Me to Life. Install shot from Discoveries 2020 at Fiumano-Clase Gallery. Casting sand, steam bent wood, terracotta, copper. 2020. Courtesy of Fiumano-Clase Gallery.
ME: I wanted to speak with you about isolation. Of course, this is now something we are all dealing with and navigating right now, but you had already started to deal with feeling isolated when you moved out of London to Oxfordshire. How did this affect your practice and connection to the art world and how are you feeling about the now enforced isolation?
MP: I came from a situation where I was living in London in a warehouse with 24 people with a studio in the middle of a hub of creatives, people from all different backgrounds. I didn’t stop for one second to think about how special this was. On top of that, I had just come out of my BA, which was very positive and everyone there was supportive. I moved to Oxfordshire for a job working in a foundry – I am now an assistant mould maker and started as a wax worker. I did it because I needed a job and blindly moved into a completely different reality: a house living by myself, a studio in a farmer’s barn on my own. All day, every day by myself. I was then going to work in this job surrounded by people who were very far removed from the contemporary art world and couldn’t care less about it. I felt completely alienated – a little bit like a character in an Albert Camus book - completely alone and in a reality that didn’t fit with what I previously thought reality was. I wasn’t driving, it took me around an hour to cycle to the nearest train station to get back to London.
Dealing with all of this, making then became quite difficult. In a situation like this, I had to stop and ask myself, why is it even important for me to come to my studio and make work? What is the relevance of what I am doing? I stubbornly kept going and failed at producing a lot of things and it was a horrible phase of doubt and crisis. I couldn’t see justification for all the things I was convinced about before. It’s easy when you’re at university or surrounded by other artists but when you don’t have this support system you begin to question everything. Day by day I had to slowly build myself up again and get to the core of what was important to me in my practice. To come back to the bare bones of it all. The action of going to the studio itself became the important thing. I kept making and tried not to judge and took the pressure away from the final product.
Maria Positano, Untitled. From VENUS (You were born from the scum of the waters). Left: Found object, brown wax. Right: Bronze cast. 2020
"I think the importance of a community and feeling some sense of belonging is absolutely crucial"
MP: In parallel, I was still going into vibrant London and was confronted with the fast-paced life that never seemed to change. Everyone seemed so convincing. It felt like I was living a double life. Although this has been a difficult period for me, it has also been positive because (and this is going to sound really cliché) my strength now is the result of questioning everything around me and everything I came from. Of course, it’s not like everything makes total sense now, but I understand the reasons within myself, at least, as to why I do what I do. What I’m trying to focus on now is the wider relevance within society.
So, just as I was coming to terms with these things, coronavirus hit and I got furloughed from my job at the foundry. The isolation then became transformed into social and complete isolation. In my case, I like to think that not a lot has changed in my day-to-day life. I’m trying to see it as an opportunity – I’m unhappy but also so focused.
ME: Do you think the unhappiness is stemming from the social isolation at the moment?
MP: I have different ideas about that. Am I unhappy because I feel lonely and I feel away from my community? Or, am I unhappy because I feel I’m not connected to myself? After a year here, I think the importance of a community and feeling some sense of belonging is absolutely crucial. I found that the more isolated I became (physically) the deeper my relationships with others became. I was reaching out to people more and having more honest conversations. When I was in London and I was busy I was taking everything for granted and not making the effort to talk to people. The enforced isolation and social-distancing due to the current pandemic seems to be highlighting this for a lot of people and bringing it out in ways that are very deeply moving. And we are lucky to have the technology to stay connected –people are doing online crits, talks, zoom calls. I understand the value of these things now.
Maria Positano, Intermediary Objects. Install Shot from Degree Show at City and Guilds of London Art School. Winner of the City and Guilds of London Art School Sculpture Prize. 2018.
ME: I think it’s interesting that you say you felt isolated when you moved to Oxfordshire, and that it felt quite polar-opposite when you went back to London; as someone who has stayed in and around London, it’s so easy to be so busy that you can end up feeling like you’ve got all those connections but when something like this happens you take a step back and realise that you weren’t really taking the time to connect and you were just busy. It’s so easy to be caught up in the fast-paced life and that’s a sort of isolation too.
MP: Absolutely, and this was partially my reality as well when I was in London. I’ve always had a tendency or a need to talk on a deep level to feel connected (maybe my Italian background?!). London can sometimes feel extremely harsh in the way that people move away from anything intimate and personal, anything deeper than surface level conversation. That’s totally fine, but when it comes to moments like this when you don’t have your distractions anymore, your agenda, or thousands of people to see, you’re just left with yourself and suddenly have to catch up with what has always been there.
ME: It’s quite confronting. People are having to spend a lot more time with their own thoughts and are perhaps realising things about themselves.
MP: Although, I think it’s important not to think about this excessively. You can get quite heavy and saturated with overthinking. It only takes a second to connect with someone, or connect with yourself. We don’t need to make this experience a big achievement for ourselves. It can be a consequence of an attitude or mind-set, but it doesn’t have to be a goal where everyone is trying to make the most out of this experience. Sometimes, you can make something awful and that’s fine. But the over-achieving, London mind-set even in isolation is exhausting: I need to run every day too and be fit etc.
"we don't need to make this experience a big achievement for ourselves. It can be a consequence of an attitude or mind-set, but it doesn't have to be a goal"
Maria Positano, Untitled. From VENUS (You were born from the scum of the waters). Bronze cast. 2020
ME: I know, I have been totally hating that. The pressure that seems to be going around to be doing everything every day. You just need to remember that you don't have to do anything. The best thing for me has been just listening to myself and trying to live day-to-day, listening to what I want to be doing that day and not expecting anything. If something comes from it then that’s great, but I don’t want to be getting into this never-ending cycle of pressure.
MP: What you just said has probably been my problem all along. It’s one of the things I realised moving here from London, that I was caught up in this pressure of being ‘successful’. I still want to be successful but I realise that can never be the goal – I need to focus on what makes me feel me, and then if that is successful then great.
ME: What does ‘success’ even mean? I think success can mean different things to different people. As you say, if you are doing whatever makes you feel you, then that is a success.
MP: Yes, I have personally struggled with my own ambition. If I leave this unchecked I can get into a mind-set of ‘hyper-achievement’. Slowing down has helped me to deal with this. To realise that I am separate to my achievements. A lot of people in isolation, I think, are wondering how to transpose their sense of achievement in everyday life in this context of Covid-19. How do I make something super socially relevant so people will follow me on Instagram? That’s great, but it doesn’t have to be the pressure of everyone.
Maria Positano, Studio shots. Work in progress during Covid-19. 2020
ME: So, what are you working on at the moment?
MP: Okay so, before this all exploded, I was working towards a solo show. It’s been put on hold now, of course, but will hopefully still happen in the future. It’s going to be in Oxfordshire. I’m still going to my studio and have been working towards this new body of work for quite a while. I’m hoping to work with someone I know on some big metal structures that should fit into this series of work. This has been postponed as well for now though. Right now, I literally just go to the studio and enjoy making. If I can get the material to arrive, then great. If I can’t, I’m trying to recycle. I’m not making from a place of pressure; I’m making because I want to be. If I don’t show the work, ultimately it doesn’t matter. Hopefully I will, but I’ve had to change my attitude about these things. I can’t die mentally every time I don’t achieve what I want to achieve.
ME: I can relate to that!
MP: It’s very easy to do. And it’s very easy to get confused. I feel like it’s a constant mind training exercise. Making work is a very complex thing. Sometimes I hate it and sometimes it makes sense. Everything I’m saying defeats the whole idea I had of this very successful artist that bashes out loads of sculptures and gets loads of shows.
ME: I think this is something a lot of people wrap their heads around after art school as well, because you do go from that supportive environment where you’re always working towards an end goal. The end goal there is a grade. Suddenly you are forced to re-evaluate why you’re doing it because you’re not always going to get that gratification of a ‘good’ crit or grade. For me, it was shifting this ‘ideal’ I had in my head of what I thought I should be doing and how I should be doing it. Breaking this down and realising it’s not something that exists, for most people. You can beat yourself up trying to live up to this.
"Making work is a very complex thing. Sometimes I hate it and sometimes it makes sense"
Maria Postiano, detail of Where you Are Not, installation made during residency at PADA Studios in October 2019. Soil from Parque Empresarial da Quimiparque, printed photography soil cast. 2019.
MP: I think it’s much more interesting and stimulating to talk with someone who is themselves, which can include a multiplicity of things. Sometimes I just see myself and realise I’m trying to portray an idea – I’m good, successful, fine – which, most of the time I’m happy to be because I’m always hunting for things to do. But sometimes I get confused and I don’t know if it’s because I want to do it or if I’m trying to prove something?
ME: And who are you trying to prove it to?
MP: Exactly. Is that person, or group of people, a weird, abstracted idea? As soon as you get the approval of that person you’re always reaching for the next.
ME: I feel like if you’re always reaching for the next thing then you’re never actually living or enjoying what you’re doing in the moment. For me, that’s been important to recognise and try and get on board with, otherwise life can pass you by.
MP: Yes – that is why I was so stuck, because my sense of self was coming from outside validation from other people and I couldn’t get that in the same way in the countryside in isolation. Who am I beyond this?
Especially with making art - a lot of it seems to depend on other people’s response to it so it then becomes about outside validation. I just changed my attitude towards this because I was tired of it. I want to make work because what I think I want to say with my work is relevant and I feel like I have something to say. People are either going to like what I am saying and give me opportunities, or I’ll make my own. Either way, it’s about understanding that I’m already the person I want to be.
Maria Positano, Untitled. From VENUS (You were born from the scum of the waters). Bronze, brown and green wax, fishing net, acrylic nails. Photo by Natalia Janula. Courtesy of Subsidiary Projects. 2020.
ME: Maybe you don’t have an answer to this yet, but I’m wondering how your choice of materials is being affected by all of this. The materials you usually use have a lot of meaning, history and tradition behind them. Since access to these is difficult right now, I’m interested to see what that does to the work that you produce.
MP: Absolutely. What you’re saying right now is of crucial importance within my practice. The same thing I’ve been saying also applies for materials – I can’t get the wood I want, I can’t get the metal I want, the bronze… so what am I going to do? I started using fake nails, chewing gum, found car parts, found objects, whatever I could get my hands on. I recycled bits I already had in the studio. I started creating a visual language of materials which was completely new to me but at the same time still completely relevant to what I already did.
In art school, I was spoiled by workshops and materials but here I was starved of those things. The only thing I had was a hand-saw and a terrible drill. There’s a great scrap yard next to where I live so I have been going there and collecting things. My sources and materials just changed and became a way to talk about the situation I was in. My practice is very much about my environment and the way that influences my language. Because I didn’t have a car, I couldn’t go and buy things and transport them to my studio so I started using eBay. I found out that fake nails could look extremely interesting sculpturally to say what I wanted to say. I was repurposing materials and contemporary objects that already have connotations and shifting them into a new context.
Shifting the narrative like that was very interesting to me – I think my practice is rather more interesting now than it was before. It was coming from a concept, and then I had all the means I wanted to express it. Now it comes from the experience of a situation where I make because of a necessity and it’s now about that necessity. I had to strip away everything and ask myself what it is that I need to be making and I realised that I could use anything. The point is the action, the intention, the purpose of it and the way it’s done. I could be using my own nails and weaving my own hair and it doesn’t matter.
ME: I’ve felt that as well – I used to struggle so much with concepts and I would get myself into a situation where I was frozen by an idea and I couldn’t make anything. It wasn’t until I started to let go of that and just make stuff that I started making interesting work. As you say, you have an abundance of materials and resources at university. Afterwards, I couldn't afford to keep buying this expensive stuff that I was using and I had to re-evaluate everything. I started recycling stuff too and I found these incredible arts recycling projects all over London (there are others outside of London too) – you can pay a very nominal fee for a yearly membership and go there and pick up whatever you want. You can of course donate too. Cardboard tubes, fabrics, wire, ribbon, old bits of plastic, wood scraps, candles – anything you can think of really. These are now unfortunately closed but I would highly recommend looking these up in the future.
I’ve now had to give up my studio for a while as a result of the Covid-19 situation and I think this will shift what I’m making again. I have had to put most of my materials in storage (when I say storage, I mean a friend’s garage) and only have a couple of bags of bits that I can use in the little space I have at home. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes. For me, it’s just about sitting down to make something when I can because I feel like I need to, and want to - rather than the outcome, or what materials I am using.
"The point is the action, the intention, the purpose of it and the way it's done. I could be using my own nails and weaving my own hair and it doesn't matter"
Maria Positano, Untitled. From VENUS (You were born from the scum of the waters).
Found object, brown wax, white wax, acrylic nails, gilded acrylic nails. 2020
"For me, sculpture is like an archaeological process, a way to understand myself in the world"
MP: It’s weird and complicated to explain because needing to make is something that you feel more than anything else. With free time, some people like to go for a run or whatever, some people like to make something. In the context of contemporary art there’s then a wider question of how what you’re making is relevant to contemporary discourse. But if you strip that question back, we just make because that’s how we like to use our time. It’s how we like to explore ourselves in the context of our society and environment. That’s the most basic way I can describe what we do as artists. It can be done in a multitude of ways. Obviously, there are certain things about my practice that are going to require money and means, but I think interesting shifts happen when you are forced to go outside of your usual box.
ME: What sorts of questions are you asking yourself about your work now?
MP: I’ve been thinking a lot about my practice in general, which up until now has been mainly sculptural. And I’ve been looking at other ways I can also express what I want to express in the world, for example, audio or video content – things that can add to a conversation within my work. I have specifically been thinking about a podcast. Something that moves away from the visual and maybe is more research based.
I think the relevance of the work I’m making is in bringing together different languages. Using processes with a traditional, anthropological imprint - techniques such as weaving, casting, forging, shaping raw materials - and integrating these with new materials such as car parts, plastic, and using them in a different way. So, there’s a question about the history of making and the meaning of that but also a question surrounding contemporary materials and environments. My work has always been about understanding myself in a wider context. Everything boils down to this – my being human through making, through concepts and through meaning.
ME: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this whole discussion that we’ve been having is basically what you do in your work. Understanding why you personally need to make but also why other people need to make – that impulse for making and where that comes from.
MP: Absolutely. And also the role that meaning has in all of this – making is an action, an experience which we process through content. It’s interesting because it talks about our existence and the way we are in the world. It can be expressed through sculpture or many other things – painting, music, moving with the body, talking to another person. For me, sculpture is like an archaeological process, a way to understand myself in the world.