Dori Deng

Dori Deng’s ephemeral approach to architecture

``The high volume of the courtyard skylight created such a depth and darkness in contrast with my projected light, which is very concentrated and structurally refined. That light quality I could absorb was truly unique``

Numeroventi: What do you consider is the most difficult part of your practice?

Dori: I always like to choose the architecture where the condition or its context are challenging to work with. On top of that, trying to control the abstract and structurally invisible material such as the projected light within those chosen architecture, it definitely does not make my life easier. But there is no fun when things just happen too easily. I guess I am addicted to challenges.

N: Technical drawings are a core part in your work, is that always the starting point? Would you tell us more about your creating procedure?

D: Drawing has become an increasingly important part of my working process in the recent years. It was the “technical drawing” to begin with when I was mostly creating live performances. The drawing at that time functioned as the “score” to document the performative happenings, mostly helped to remember the dancers’ movement sequences within the space. Because I worked site-specifically, architecture element has always been the starting point of every single project, whether that’s a performance or an installation. Therefore, it was very natural for me to start drawing the floor plan on grid paper, then expanded it three-dimensionally drew on isometric paper before I applied the “skin” on to, which they are the materials that I used. The drawing process is intertwined with my thinking and physical making now, it happens before, during, and after I have made the piece. It is part of my thinking.

Physical making and drawings often forms the debate between the materials, the architecture, and myself. It is a debate that is throwing back-and-forth to refine an idea. Sometimes when I had an idea of how to manipulate the light, I started with drawing, later on in the physical making, the light might not react the same way as I expected; oppositely, sometimes I discovered an interesting quality of the light, I would go back to drawing and it clarified my thoughts and the understanding of the physic of that light quality. I work with the light and space, also the duration, they are the mediums that are solidly physical but very abstract and sensual in our perception. It is not easy to get a grip on them, especially since I am trying to control and make order of them… That’s why drawing is a great tool for me to communicate with my materials.

I have kept my drawings only to myself for a very long time, until recent years I started to show them to people I worked with and to my friends. Because the drawings have the technical function to me and they are part of my thinking, I didn’t think they will make sense to the others. But the increasing interest and feedback I have received about my drawings have made me realise they also exist as individual pieces of work. The technical aesthetic and aspect made people curious, even if they have not seen my actual work.

N: You mentioned before that working in a studio makes the work smaller in a way since it’s confined to the boundaries of that studio. Tell us a bit about your experience of working across the palazzo and having to make a permanent piece? How did the building influenced you and your work?

D: It is not just because I work site-specifically so the studio space affects my work. I think no matter what you do, the physical surrounding and its context would have the impact on your freedom of thinking and the creation. A fish in a fish tank would repeatedly swim around the same spots, if you throw it into the ocean, it will then start to learn to swim against the huge waves. The A4 paper can be the limitation, the canvas can be the limitation, so does the studio. I guess that’s why I work with light, space, and duration site-specifically, these mediums exist everywhere and they are borderless, so why should I situate my practice in a liminal space such as a small studio the whole time?!

It is always challenging to work site-specifically, especially I seem to have only chosen interesting but physically difficult spaces to work with. The historical Italian palazzo is one of them. I have a lot of respect to the proportion, symmetry and the harmony in the traditional Italian architecture. To be able to throw a thread of light over that huge volume is very exciting! For instant the piece (‘Termination Series, Work No. 8’) I made for the arch at the courtyard this time at Numeroventi, projected the light to make a gesture of an incomplete circle of the 5 metres high arch was a total satisfaction to me. Working with that volume and projecting the light vertically are unique to this specific architecture feature. The other piece (‘Termination Series, Work No. 7’) that I also had a lot of fun in making was located at the turning corner from the entrance to the grand staircase. If you walk from the entrance to the staircase, there is the 90 degrees right angle turning inward. What I did in sonpond, was to construct a composition of two sets of triangles at that corner pointing outwards. That is the interaction I had with that space, also the interaction to the people who having to walk around and pass it. Especially, all of these interactions were treated completely organically with the architecture i.e. there was not a single nail drill into any surface anywhere, all the materials that I used reacted to the architecture based on the law of physic and the nature of gravity, simply by hanging, leaning, stretched, and then apply with the projected light. The technical restriction of the historical architecture pushed me to think organically, this is my way to pay the respect to the materials and to the architecture. It is also a conversation I had with the architecture.

I want my work to breathe with the space. In a sense, this is how it will live in the space permanently. It is the experience and a different way of reading the architecture space that would stay with you, but not necessarily the object itself.
Even the permanent installation I am developing now for one of the apartments in Numeroventi, is an object and at the same time it would be an experience and memory of luminaire.

N: What was your most memorable moment?

D: I am the typical “night owl” who works a lot in the dark in the evening on my own, because the nature of working with the light. There were a few evenings, I was experimenting with the projected light with the architecture structure of the courtyard in Numeroventi. The high volume of the courtyard skylight created such a depth and darkness in contrast with my projected light, which is very concentrated and structurally refined. That light quality I could absorb was truly unique. I was in love with that experience! On top of that, the courtyard has such a strong echo, any small movement I made would expand into such a sound wave. The combination of that light quality and the sound, also the solitude were unforgettable. It was a world on its own.

N: You’re going back to London in a few days, can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

D: The next project is back in London, a new piece of site-specific durational performance within the ongoing series “Rhythm Series”, which I have been developing with my long-term collaborator Meta Drčar for a few years. This new piece is commissioned by the Art Night 2018. We are going to construct a durational piece that relying on notative dance movement to interact, and react to sculptural objects at some public gardens outdoor by the river Thames, overlooking the Battersea Power Station on a hot summer night.

N: What are you bringing with you from your stay at Numeroventi?

D: I think it is the liberation of creating work with, and within the architecture. The experience to treat the architecture of the historical Palazzo Galli Tassi as a testing ground, to construct works that site-specifically in response are truly unique. For someone like myself who has a strong craving to create site-specific works, this liberation and freedom that I had have been very precious.

I used to read a lot about the amazing stories of the older generation of artists who worked with light and space such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Dan Flavin. The stories of them working with the visionary Italian collector and commissioner back in the 60’s – 70’s fascinated me. The projects in Villa Panza and Chiesa Rossa Church in Milan, were so controversial at that time, it really challenged our perception of dematerialisation in the language of art in that era. I have a lot of respect to both of the artists and their commissioners who had that vision in the 60’s. It is the trust, the vision and risk taking mind to be able to achieve something we see as the remarkable imaginative masterpieces now. Unfortunately, that type of relationship is happening less and less in the art world these days. But, I am extremely lucky to have this amount of trust and support from Numeroventi, from Martino who runs the programme. Sentimentally, I feel like I am following a similar path to my art heroes, to challenge myself to work site-specifically in the respectful historical Italian architecture with people who believed in me. It is such a heartwarming feeling to bring with me.

Photos: Marina Denisova