Fantasies of Creation: In Conversation with Ilana Harris-Babou

By September 13, 2021
installation view of sculptures on pink blocks, a video screen with a still of a black woman's eyes
Installation view of Tasteful Interiors. Photography by North Light Imaging.

Ilana Harris-Babou: Tasteful Interiors, an early-career survey at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is comprised of four vignettes of the artist’s recent bodies of work and a series of small-scale collages. Each vignette contains a video and an associated display of ceramic objects. At first glance, the objects are tools—things that help one do something, but upon closer inspection it is revealed that they are fragile representations of tools: ceramic spatulas, gua sha stones, and hammers. On the monitors, food and construction materials squish, ooze, drip, and break. Meanwhile, Harris-Babou and her mother/co-host offer the smooth, yet satirical pitch of skilled salespeople. Taste—both as a sensory experience and a measurement for prescribed aesthetics— is questioned. How is taste acquired and who gets to have it?

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

I left the gallery with my own questions about documenting the creative process, the past as a commodified aesthetic, and the relationship between conceptual art and digital marketing. In reference to this recently mounted exhibition, I spoke to Harris-Babou via video conference. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Courtney McClellan: Your work addresses wellness  and commerce. You use humor to critique these industries, but you also have spoken about being drawn to their aspirational goals. Can you talk about why admiration and antagonism, or desire and criticality, is a fruitful place from which to make art?

Ilana Harris-Babou: I think it’s hard to show up if you don’t derive some form of pleasure from the process. You know, it’s a moment for me. I often start by looking at forms that I’m attracted to, that seduce me. And then asking myself, what mechanisms lie underneath the surface here?  What sorts of things I might take for granted and what sorts of things could I not live without?

CM: Like the balance of curiosity and critique during production, the tone of the work is complex. In Decision Fatigue (2020) your mother, who is your frequent collaborator and subject, talks about the pain of breastfeeding and then in the next clip offers a recipe for a Cheetos face mask. You say you use “humor and familiar digital forms as a Trojan horse to get heavier materials into people’s line of sight”. Can you talk about this strategy?

Rafael Soldi: A body in transit is now on view at the Frost Museum, Miami through December 4

IH-B: I think video as a medium is a space that allowed artists to put their work in conversation with popular culture. It’s a medium that lives. And at first, getting access to it was by going to public access TV stations. It never pretended to exist outside of our everyday world. It always had a foot out the door of the studio and into the world of entertainment. 

The most natural thing when I started using video was to frame these moments that were happening in the studio. Then I thought, how am I going to share my videos with others? I was streaming YouTube, and so I think it’s a way for the material that I’m thinking about to enter my own life and studio. Whether it’s me looking at weird mommy blogs and thinking about how breastfeeding is romanticized, and then thinking about how that goes on in my own life, or in those ways of relating to a body. So, then I take a viewer along that journey with me and go from something seeming familiar and safe, to some kind of grand narrative seeming authentic, to realizing that it’s actually totally weird.

CM: All of the videos inquire about aesthetics as it relates labor— but I think Reparations Hardware (2018) posed questions about these relationships most overtly. The objects shared in this faux advertisement appeared without utility yet has increased value because they were handmade. The work suggests there is a great danger and cruelty when the past is reduced to a patina. Can you talk about aesthetics and history as it relates to this work?

IH-B: When I started working on it, or conceptualizing it, I was doing the Fountainhead Fellowship so I was living in Richmond, VA, and I hadn’t lived there before. It’s still weirdly the furthest I’ve ever lived from home in New York. It was also the 2016 election, and it was my first time being in this place where the legacy of the Civil War is everywhere. 

About the object, the idea was of a ceramic hammer as a crafted tool and it would be this tool that would undo itself through its very use. And I was asking myself, is the American project a ceramic hammer of sorts? It felt like the fragility of it related seamlessly to the legacy of the Civil War. Everywhere it was apparent all the time. Also, the election made the fragility feel all the more present. 

“Oh you know, this white dude did this before. And so if I’m seeing your body in there, I need an explanation.” I thought about that. His utter and complete inability to see my hands as objective hands, but [instead] hands that needed to explain themselves.

sculptures of glass and ceramic bottles on pink blocks
Installation view, Tasteful Interiors. Photography by North Light Imagery.

I had been working on that piece, Finishing a Raw Basement (2017) where I had been thinking about homeownership and fixing a home. So that made my mind go to who’s written out of these stories? A lot of the times the titles in my work, or the things that I say, come out of just sort of playing with words. We had been saying “repairs” or “repairs fix” a lot. Then the idea of reparations just kind of came forward. What is fixed and what could never be fixed? Who can’t own a home and why? Why do we want to know the provenance of the materials of our $3,000 table? Why do we fantasize about history? When it relates to materials, it seemed like it is a way to bring the past into your home. Like I say in the video, bring the past into your home tastefully and in doing, name the past as a success, and then thinking about why reparations might be so terrifying. It names the past as a failure, a failure in economic terms specifically. 

CM: Language seems important and in all these videos, particularly jargon. Why does jargon interest you?

IH-B: I think about how these things just kind of repeat or bounce around in your head or come up in these shows again and again. The words that you use start to define the boundaries of a community, right? Whether it’s a community, or it’s the kind of speak that folks use in academia, right? The words themselves become less and less about the things, the concepts or the objects that they love, and more and more about how you position yourself in relation to the other people who want to name those concepts in a similar way, or similar sentiment, or come from a similar geography to you. 

Installation view, Tasteful Interiors. Photography by North Light Image.

CM: All the works seems to have an affinity with conceptualism, but also popular culture. While watching the videos I saw you drawing a line from Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) to Bon Appetit cooking videos; from David Hammon’s Blizaard Ball Sale (1983) to QVC-style sales pitches; from Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting (1974) to House Hunters. Are these references important to the work and how or why do you draw a connection between these conceptualist gestures and digital marketing?

IH-B: Yeah, I like that! When I first started using video, I would be manipulating paint or materials inside of my studio and then realizing that that moment was what was exciting to me. I would frame those in a frontal way with the camera, those gestures. I guess it made certain people think about Bruce Nauman. I remember this professor I had saying, “Oh, you know, this white dude did this before. And so, if I’m seeing your body in there, I need an explanation.” I thought about that. His utter and complete inability to see my hands as objective hands, but [instead] hands that needed to explain themselves. That unwillingness to see me in it. This is an assumption that a studio is a neutral space and then for me to be placed in there, makes it somehow not neutral anymore. 

It made me think about all these fantasies we have about these different spaces of creation. Studios are this white walled space with a genius artist, flinging around paint. How is that space of creation similar to or different from a sound stage or a kitchen with the cooking show host? A basement or man cave where we imagine someone making? Or an artisanal workshop, how is that similar to or different from my grandma cooking pigs feet in the kitchen?  Which kinds of creative labor are revered, and which ones are considered mundane? Which kinds of people framed by different sorts of lenses are thought to be allowed to be making in those spaces or to represent community? My hand has always been my hand for me, and it’s meant to be moving paint around. 

CM: Upon entering the gallery I saw a room filled with tools: tools hanging on the wall, tools displayed on tables and pedestals, tools depicted in the videos. You also quote Audre Lorde in your work Finishing a Raw Basement (2017), “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Can you talk about your interest in tools, and how tools as objects and perhaps as metaphor are important to your work?

IH-B: I started making the sculptures as props or different sets in my videos, and then they sort of took on a life of their own. When I was making them, I was doing this residency at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, NY. It was interesting to talk about these particular objects that existed within this other ecosystem of video, as themselves. I was calling them dysfunctional ceramics, kind of playing on that idea of what dysfunction means, and when it’s placed in contrast to when systems are functioning and when are they not.

What is a dysfunctional home and a dysfunctional set of relations between people? When you activate an object from “misuse” it makes us think more broadly about our relationship to our bodies, and how that shifts our relationship to others.

Ilana Harris-Babou: Tasteful Interiors at the ICA at UTC is on view Aug 16-Nov 5, 2021, Artist Talk on Oct 21.

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