Medusa’s Last Laugh: An Interview with Bri Williams

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Medusa’s Last Laugh: An Interview with Bri Williams

By Nat Marcus October 2, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


It says something about our culture that a mainstream movie involving supernatural possession is always a horror movie, that a spirit inhabiting an object or human is invariably a malevolent force. But we also come to inhabit our personal possessions, be they material, emotional, or psychological, like the fingertip-oil streak on an iPhone screen. Parts of us rub on and off with contact, like a shared body language between you and your boo. We become engulfed by our convictions, the image of an ally or a monster one projects onto another person. 

For her sculptural works, Bri Williams often sources objects from antique malls, second-hand stores, or simply from the street: materials that were once possessed by someone or something else—and perhaps still are. Gazing upon her sculptures, a viewer is seized by their texture and detail. Through her crafting and composition, Williams lets the objects embody the abstract: the incommunicability of pain or our inherited mythical figures. But in these pieces there is also an intimate presence of the artist through her hand, which makes me think these ideas have come to possess Williams as well.

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Nat Marcus: How did you start using soap in your work? It’s rendered corporeal and fleshy in one piece; in another work, Blarney, I assume the soap acts more functionally as a substrate for the frankincense and myrrh listed in its caption. Your use of soap is so varied.

Bri Williams: I was originally thinking about soap sculptures that prisoners would make in jail. The materiality of soap is a metaphor for cleanliness; subconsciously, I guess I was trying to combat the pain I wanted to evoke in each object. I believe it almost “exorcises” the objects and leaves them as demons, frozen in place. This is especially the case with the the pieces in my recent solo show at Interface Gallery

Blarney was actually my first time trying to use the material for an interactive piece. Next to the soap block was a bowl with water and two towels. I did not give instructions but wanted anyone who felt like it to wash their hands. Frankincense and myrrh were given to Jesus when he was first born, and historically they have been used for spiritual ceremonies, funerals, and embalming. Their scents are related not only to suffering but also to spiritual cleansing. The block is meant to be rubbed until the rabbit foot is revealed inside, which is disintegrating from age (it’s from 1970)—the soap helps break down the foot as well. It gives me a lot to work with, materially and as a metaphor. It acts as a microphone and a stand.

NM: Because a lot of your materials are found objects, do you find yourself having to contend with the pains and histories of past owners that are imbued within them?

BW: The majority of the materials I work with are personal objects from my past and my family’s past. For example, in the Playground and the Liquor Store, the chain-link basketball net and the skeleton of this liquor stand come from a corner I had been going to since I was nine years old. History is important to me because it tends to tell us about the future. 

I use found and antique objects because I believe they have a haunting presence. The body that used to hold them is now absent. Do I believe these objects can hold spirits? I am paranoid that some could. Usually when I am in a museum by myself, around sacred antiques from Egypt or Greece or elsewhere, I get a heavy, eerie feeling—not necessarily related to fear but more to the awe of a strong phenomenological experience. My thoughts are born from thinking about the broad topic of pain, but with most of the objects I look for, I want them to hold that absent body’s presence.

I guess I focus on narratives of pain and trauma because I believe those are the hardest feelings to communicate. It is easy to inflict pain but impossible to feel the pain that one inflicts on another, which I think is a root cause of so much prejudice and racism. I studied the philosophy of pain, and this idea stayed with me. I did not know why until I got older; it revealed itself to me through social and political situations and everyday microaggressions, from being a Black woman. One of the quotes from Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain that I still think about while making art is, “The language of pain creates a language as well as destroys it.”

NM: Scarry’s quote reminds me of some of your pieces that refer to Greek mythology. Medusa also purified those who looked into her eyes—as stone, like soap, stalls and refines. Her pain is rarely considered—having been raped in Athena’s temple, she was cursed by the goddess—and so often she is only considered a villain. In engaging with these canonical figures to communicate trauma, what do you think is being generated and destroyed?

BW: The things I make never come from a thought-out plan. I make many mistakes, and then I can see the narrative. Before the horse became a Medusa, I had it upside down in a soap-mold, and its head accidentally broke off. But this instance made her story come to the surface. I began to think of the piece as a triumph of Medusa: her body is bursting through the bricks, almost saluting her own face. Ultimately, her curse is her weapon; it made her stronger. The mirror stands more for the paranoia that most painful experiences entail. I always want to talk about the past, present, and future of trauma at the same time. And honestly, I would rather be a villain because it seems like the safest and most empowering thing.

Bri Williams. School Mates, 2017; fabric, cotton, shoes; 35 x 11 x 7 in. Courtesy of Ramiken Crucible. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

NM: Many of the materials you use are freighted with a sense of ritual or superstition, like the rabbit's foot or the black witch moth. The works you showed in Diamond Stingily's Surveillance show at Ramiken Crucible also had me thinking of voodoo dolls, as talismans for channeling pain and not just causing it, which is a common misconception.

Maybe it is presumptive of me to read the School Mates and Confirmation dolls in the same way as your sculptures. Do you see them as belonging to a different process and intention? 

BW: These objects at times do become either part of a ritual or representative of a ritual (or a happening). I had made the School Mates dolls before I knew I was going to show them at Ramiken Crucible; they’re related to a memory of going to a friend’s house when I was little, and she had a "time out" doll with its hands in front of its face, like it was crying. People dress these dolls in, like, cowboy clothes or team jerseys and put them in front of their houses or in their living rooms. It’s a very country thing. With those two dolls, I rust-dyed the socks and shoes to try to evoke that history; the dresses were made out of bell-bottom pants from the 1970s. When I first showed them, in my MFA show, the dolls were crouched over a rock with a painted image of a little girl who also has her hands over her face. So I guess, in that case, they were the ones performing the rituals. I also thought a lot about the doll Annabelle, which was a doll that had been possessed by a demon that pretended that it was the spirit of a little girl. 

I thought of those dolls as more like my children than objects. The act of sewing takes so much care, and the process seemed more mechanical than spiritual. I am used to making mistakes into meaning, but in making the dolls I had no room for mistakes. 

 Bri Williams. The playground and the drugstore, 2018; basketball net, cornerstore stand backing. Courtesy of Interface Gallery. Photo credit: Phillip Maisel.

NM: Are you a fan of horror films?

BW: I am a huge fan of horror films! I love the anxiety that takes you to the edge of your seat, afraid to keep watching but watching it anyway because you want to find out how it will end. They become an extreme meta-narrative for me, related to life and death: we keep living for the future. I’m inspired by the cinematography of older films, like Carrie, which was the first movie that turned me on to the hero-as-villain idea as well. Monsters are not born; they are made, mostly from trauma they had endured themselves. I also think vengeance really gets me off. 

NM: You said that eerie feeling of being around relics was not necessarily related to fear. Do you think your art practice has an element of not only finding alternative means to communicate pain but also dealing with the fear of it?

BW: I would say that I have no fear of the actual pain. It’s more that the "first bite” or anticipation of pain is the scariest part. The fear of not knowing is stronger. My biggest fear in life right now is being the victim of a hate crime. It affects everything about the way I carry myself and all my personal anxieties. It makes me more antisocial and distrusting of everyone around me. I’m trying to get better at not being afraid, and making work somehow helps me feel like I can conquer a part of this fear. Honestly, fuck feeling safe; I’d rather feel that, by any means necessary, I can stand for myself.

Bri Williams: Lying is the most fun was on view at Interface Gallery in San Francisco through September 15, 2018.

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