Exactitude in Science:

A Conversation with Irene Kopelman

by Jennifer Burris

July 17, 2014

Installation view KW Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the 8th Berlin Biennial (2014)
Installation view KW Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the 8th Berlin Biennial (2014)
Photograph: Nick Ash

Jennifer Burris: I’d like to start our conversation with a work you made at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in 2002 titled Three Interventions in a Space. For this project, you asked the photographer René van der Weerd to take spatial photographs of your entire studio, capturing every detail within 257 individual shots. These almost archaeological renderings were then used to virtually reconstruct the space via drawing; as you describe, showing “every little unevenness on the walls, floor, and plinths in the studio by copying, mapping, and drawing them.” Aside from its resonance with Bruce Nauman’s video installation Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which he made in 2001, this project also made me think of Jorge Luis Borges’s one-paragraph story Del rigor en la ciencia (1946). In this short text, Borges describes an Empire where the science of cartography is so exact that only a 1:1 scale map is accepted. In what ways might the epistemological concerns of representation, exactitude, and framing evoked in Borges’s story inform your current fieldwork in Panama at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution (STRI)?

Irene Kopelman Lianas, 2014  20 drawings pencil on paper
Irene Kopelman
Lianas, 2014 
20 drawings pencil on paper
21 x 29 cm
Courtesy Irene Kopelman; Galería LABOR, Mexico City

Irene Kopelman: Well, they are not disconnected. In a way, I see the studio and the rainforest as different challenges to explore. I’m thinking in particular of The Exact Opposite of Distance: three sets of drawings that I made during my stay in the Amazon in 2012. This recent project, and the one I’m doing now on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, investigates questions of mapping similar to the ones I explored in 2002. My work is really process-like, it’s always ongoing; I could just as easily go back to studio-based projects after my time in the field as well.

I’ve also noticed a similar process with scientists. Here, in Panama, you see them working a lot in the lab before they move to the jungle. I’ve realized that the studio, in this way, is like a lab: a place where you try to articulate your coordinates and processes before moving to the field. In laboratories, you are able to control situations: the light, the environment, and the temperature. And, of course, in the forest, such controls are impossible. Right now, my project focuses on drawing lianas—a type of climbing plant that grows from the tree canopy. The process of walking through the forest and finding these plants is a kind of mapping. But it differs from Three Interventions in a Space because it is impossible to draw all the lianas I see, where, in the studio, there is a conclusion because of the limits of the four walls; even though the impression while doing it was of an endless task, it potentially had an end.

JB: How do you, as an artist working in these environments, deal with this absence of determinability or control?

IK: I find the attempt to frame experiments totally forced, because when you take them outside of the lab and into the forest then it is obviously not going to work in the same way. Personally, I prefer the fieldwork to the lab; it is much more interesting to have to deal with and be immersed in the environment. The process of having to respond to unpredictable situations forces me to find solutions that were not planned, which ultimately leads the work into corners I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

Irene Kopelman Sampling Greens
Irene Kopelman
Sampling Greens, 2012 
30 pencil and gouache on paper, diptychs
Each 18 x 25 cm, 24 x 30 cm
Exhibited at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen (2013)
and KW Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the 8th Berlin Biennial (2014)
Photograph: Nick Ash

JB: Reading your text about the 2012 work in Peru’s Amazon [Kopelman often writes about her process], I was struck by your description of the jungle as baroque: an engulfing space of superimposition and interconnection. How does the act of drawing within this type of space, or the drawings themselves, mediate between a desire for distance and the physical experience of immersion?

IK: The drawings are an attempt to create distance, perhaps a minimalist urge to isolate single elements within a space where it is almost impossible to do. Also, unless you understand the logic and complexity of the jungle, then it really is not very beautiful. It is only with understanding that it becomes so. By isolating elements or showing some form of process and system, it renders the vision of this encompassing space—otherwise alienating—as beautiful.

JB: Does this attempt to create distance via drawing manifest itself in your current work? Is the project in some ways grounded by a desire to impose forms of objectivity on an otherwise incomprehensible space?

IK: I don’t think of my practice in terms of objectivity, but rather in terms of creating a system that allows interpretation. It’s a different “reading” of a specific reality, but not one that is necessarily objective—quite the contrary. When I walk through the forest I often think of the Polish novelist and dramatist Witold Gombrowicz’s writings, in the sense that I try to see the forest as a conjunction of fictional signs that cohere to create a narrative.

I always have to begin with a potential project that sounds very rational: it’s the first stage or impulse, the construction I create in order to enter a situation. But then once I’m there it becomes very intuitive. I throw myself into the situation, and embrace randomness. But even with this apparent randomness, I’m always trying to find or create a system that I can then follow in a very organized way; it’s like solving a problem or a riddle. There is a moment when it crystallizes. I used to get much more stressed, but now I know I’m going to be OK and that the structure for working will emerge somehow.

Irene Kopelman
From the River, 2012 
27 ink drawings on paper
21 x 29 cm
Exhibited at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen (2013)
and Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the 8th Berlin Biennial (2014)
Photograph: Nick Ash

JB: Do the scientists that you collaborate with proceed similarly? Is there space for their methodology to emerge from chance or exploration?

IK: Not really, because their job is to deliver specific results and remain within a very defined subject. Their range of freedom seems smaller, but it’s deeper. At least that’s my feeling. There is a lot of creativity and problem solving in their work, but they don’t have the space or time for failure, where, as an artist, you have to allow yourself to fail.

Despite such differences, we have a very profound common ground, which is a fascination for nature. I don’t expect my work to inform their practice, but interesting conversations arise from looking at the same thing with the same amount of attention but using very different approaches. For example, my current research on lianas and on the patterns that ghost crabs make every day in the sand is totally against any form of classification. It’s about looking at multiple forms and variation, without any desire to create synthesis or explain process. The scientists with whom I am working have a very similar understanding and fascination for the endless variations that nature produces. Ultimately, however, their goal is different. At the end of the day they have to trace conclusions, and that necessity is embedded in the system within which they develop their practices and experiments.

Irene Kopelman
Crab Pellets, 2014 
18 watercolors on paper
35,5 x 43 cm
Courtesy Irene Kopelman; Galería LABOR, Mexico City

JB: In what ways do these two different subjects of study—lianas and crabs—intersect?

IK: I’m not sure if they intersect beyond the realm of my project. I look at patterns, and these two organisms have very different strategies for forming patterns. Lianas, for example, use the energy of the tree to grow and develop; they don’t spend energy to create a trunk, but instead climb on trees and ultimately reach the top of the canopy before them. This enables them to reach light-the resource that all organisms fight for in the forest—faster than other forms of plant life. Lianas seem to be increasingly with global warming.

Crabs have a completely other form of existence: their life is connected to the tides. They hide in their burrows when the tide is high, and come out to start feeding when the tide is low. I became interested in the patterns left on the sand by the crabs when they eat: leftover inorganic material in the shape of small balls that create a multiple of “lines.” Different types of crabs create different patterns because they have distinct strategies for memorizing routes back to the burrow in the case of danger. While some of them memorize by countering their own steps in horizontal and vertical directions, others can apparently visualize, which seems to be the case with ghost crabs. This ability for visualization enables them to move much more freely in space, and therefore the patterns they create seem infinitely variable. The routes the crabs take also vary as an effect of the diverse conditions they encounter, for example, a bird attack. Every single daily pattern is distinct because it is a direct result of momentary impulse or response to multiple environmental situations.

JB: Humans aren’t the only species adapting to geological changes. Everything around us is adapting and changing as well.

IK: Exactly. We’re competing for resources.

Installation view KW Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the 8th Berlin Biennial (2014)
Photograph: Nick Ash

JB: The location of your work in Panama—a historic site of international shipping, where biological invasions as well as other forms of predation and resistance connect the environment to global economic shifts—further orients your very specific study of four individual ecosystems (mangroves, crabs, lianas, and invasive species) within broader ecological concerns. Where specifically in the region are you working?

IK: I first came across the “leaf litter trap”—a PVC pipe construction with a net—at the STRI workstation in Barro Colorado Island during my research fellowship there in 2012. Leaf litter traps capture dead plant material that has fallen to the ground in order to analyze chemical composition and nutrient cycling. I then decided to install my own trap while in Gamboa, choosing locations rather arbitrarily based on where I thought there were conditions to produce good amounts of litter. This was my first project at STRI.

When I returned to do additional fieldwork in 2014, I studied lianas with the help of the Stefan Schnitzer at the Schnitzer Lab on Barro Colorado Island, and also worked in Punta Culebra, where John Christy (a staff biologist at the STRI) carries out his research on crabs. Additionally, I developed part of the project at Mark Torchin’s lab in Punta Culebra. Among other things, Torchin studies invasive species that enter Panama via the ships that pass through the canal: his lab’s research takes place in different port areas. I also did a pilot exploration at STRI’s Bocas del Toro Research Station to look at mangroves, which are studied by Andrew Altieri (a staff biologist at the STRI).

During all this time, when I’m in the field, I make all my drawings on-site: I spend hours in the jungle. With the crabs, however, sometimes I do the drawings in the field (on the beach) and then finish the watercolor in the office. It is almost impossible to work with watercolor or painting on-site.

JB: Why do you work this way rather than, say, taking a photograph that you later draw from?

IK: I’m a believer in the process itself, which has a lot to do with the experience of being in the space as you observe and select things. All of that affects the way you make the drawing. With the crabs, for example, the drawings have to be made when the tides are low and the patterns are still visible, otherwise your subject is washed away. So there is a time element that totally affects and changes the result: the drawing has to be done in three hours. In a way, this is the most important part. All that matters to me is to be able to make a drawing that is inextricably tied to a situation and my experience within it.

Irene Kopelman (b.1974 in Córdoba, Argentina; lives and works in Amsterdam, Netherlands) received a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship in 2012. Choosing to work with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Kopelman returned to the site in early 2014 to complete a series of drawings, gouaches, and watercolors. This work is currently on view through August 3rd at KW Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the 8th Berlin Biennial.

Jennifer Burris is a writer and curator based in Mexico City.