INTERVIEW: ArtworldNow meets American artist Marijke Keyser

Martin Macdonald chats to Seattle-based American artist Marijke Keyser. Having trained in both the US and the UK, Keyser is interested in exploring the material formation of sound.

Tell me about your training.
I earned my BFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Washington in Seattle. I trained in Euston Road School style observational painting and drawing there but also took classes in printmaking, percussion, interactive installation and sound art. 

I then went on to earn my MFA in Fine Art from the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London. I was a member of the painting cohort there but again, I made all sorts of work, from performance to animation to sound installation. While Slade has a well-established passion for painting, everyone there is very open-minded about students experimenting across media ‘boundaries’, which was an excellent atmosphere for me to work in.

Lyon Dérivation, 2015, Collage, tape, graphite on paper. 50 x 38cm. Image courtesy of the artist

As someone who trained in painting, what made you want to incorporate other art mediums into your practice?

I was always using painting to describe my bodily relationship to space. I was working with direction, depth and perspective but at the end of the day, it was illusionistic. No matter what I put on the surface of the painting, I was asking the viewer to engage mentally with all of these things. 

I decided that I was much more interested in creating work that could be experienced physically, where the viewer, like myself, would become aware of his/her own body’s situation in space, in their surroundings.  Working with sound and installation enables me to create situations the audience enters, walks around in, gets caught up in... which is so much closer to the heart of what I care about.

The Graft, 2018. Stop-motion animation on cube monitors, found tree trunk pieces. Image courtesy of the artist

What role do sound and landscape play in your work?

Landscape has always been a part of my work, not necessarily in a traditional, view-out-the-window sense, but more in terms of forming a mental you-are-here map. I am constantly trying to understand where I am in relation to my surroundings and sound beautifully articulates that relationship. Sound emanates from the landscape -a plane overhead, a river over there, church bells over there.

These sounds are describing where they came from, how far they travelled to get to me, and I, the listener, am caught in the middle of all these messages. It’s like being at the centre of a spiderweb, feeling the vibrations from the edges. I love that sensation of being both here, listening, and also stretching my awareness to the most distant reaches of earshot.

Tell me about Time Thicket, your installation currently on display at Fiumano Clase as part of the Discoveries exhibition.

This piece uses ceramic bells, hanging from the ceiling, each with a small speaker installed inside. The speakers play back recordings of the sounds each bell makes. 

This came about because I was doing residency at a ceramic studio called Rochester Square. I knew I wanted to use clay to make sound but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. Clay seemed to be a quick material to use to create a hollow, resonant space. 
I ended up making bells by accident the first time I was on a pottery wheel. I used a lot of different clay types - stoneware, terracotta, porcelain, both fresh from the ground and reclaimed. Each bell had its own unique tone. I made recordings of what the bells sounded like before and after glazing them, and the glazing changed each bell’s pitch significantly, usually going up by about an octave. I was fascinated by that material change directly affecting a change in sound. 

As I had I all these old recordings of sounds the bells would never make again, I decided to install a speaker in each bell so that it could play back all its possible sounds - old and new. 

 I composed the recordings so that in the installation, a single person standing underneath it can sometimes hear each bell chiming individually, almost like hearing a ball bounce around a room - ping, ping, pong - and sometimes all the bells are making noise at once like a wash or a choir.

Time Thicket installation at Fiumano Clase, London

What are you currently working on and how do you see your practice developing?

I have two projects in the works right now, one in wood and one in stone. I am building a marimba - like an enormous xylophone with a lower register -  from different local species of wood, learning how they all shape sound differently. Once it’s built, I’m thinking I might leave it outside to let the weather slowly affect its sound. 

And I recently took a trip through Greece, Macedonia and Italy, listening to stones at ancient sites of particular importance to me. I used contact resonators on stone surfaces at the Minoan Palace of Knossos, the megalithic observatory at Kokino, the petroglyphs in Seradina-Bedolina National Park, sending vibrations into the stones. I have dozens of recordings of these stones resonating. I don’t know yet how they will be used in my work, but they are rich with meanings - the history of the sites, the materials they were built with, the local geology, the routes people have taken to visit them and walk through them… all of these elements affect the sounds I recorded.

As you can probably tell, I am digging into the material formation of sound. This is what I began investigating with Time Thicket, with its different types of clay, and the evolution of the bells’ sounds due to time and temperature. The relationship here, between physical form and invisible sound waves, is truly fascinating to me.

Which contemporary artists do you most admire and why?

My current art crushes are Janet Cardiff, Joan Jonas, and Pauline Oliveros. 

Cardiff and Jonas work across traditional media boundaries. Jonas works in film, performance and drawing, and Cardiff works with narrative, sound, and installation. I respect and admire the way they use whatever tools and methods they deem necessary, without worrying about what sacrosanct disciplinary borders they might be crossing. 

And Oliveros was a composer, who worked mainly with her voice, her re-tuned accordion, and tape.  She founded a school of thought she called 'Deep Listening', which incorporates environmental sounds, sounds made by the listener, and sounds imagined and remembered in the mind. I am particularly inspired by an album she recorded in 1991, inside a disused underground cistern in my home state of Washington. Inside this space, echoes take 45 seconds to die completely so when she plays her accordion in there, she is in a way making music with her past self (as her previous notes continue to sound alongside her current ones) and with the space (as it shapes and reacts to the sounds). This places her in a beautiful feedback loop connecting her sound, her ears, her hands, her thoughts, the space, the echoes. It’s wonderful!