Diane Borsato is an artist who often works with naturalists, hobbyists, and amateur organizations—including mycologists, astronomers, and beekeepers in projects that examine social and sensorial modes of knowing. She is currently working on a new project, The Moon Is Often Referred To As a Dead, Barren World, But I Think This Is Not Necessarily The Case, which will culminate in an exhibition at the CAG. For the work, Diane will invite several Ikebana masters from the modern Sogetsu school to participate in a collaborative workshop and installation. The practitioners will work with seasonal materials, and the materials and space of the CAG. She will also provide a conceptual framework for materializing a dialogue between the worlds of Ikebana—often a highly technical, rule-based traditional cultural practice, and contemporary art—with its own unmistakable tropes and cultural specificities
The work is part of an ongoing series that examines aspects of learning, practicing, and exhibiting arrangements of flowers. The title is from a statement made the modern sculptor and Sogetsu founder Teshigahara Sofu in Kadensho: Book of Flowers. Diane has been studying Sogetsu ikebana for several years. The artist sat down to answer questions about her work.
You began university as a theater major. Can you tell me about your early career and how you made the change to art?
I was always looking longingly into the sculpture studio at York University through the glass. In some ways I felt like I didn’t want to work with people, the way I did in theater school. I loved this romantic idea about artists—which I recognize now is a mythology—of being alone with materials and using my hands, being covered with clay and plaster, and having this really physical experience. And the idea of studio work satisfied my more introverted side, wanting to have a private, reflective practice. But I started making sculpture and very quickly I was interested in using ephemeral materials like food and plants. Making these kinds of sculptures with these ephemeral materials meant they were time-based, and that led naturally into making video and even performance. I was interested in artworks that were alive, that changed, that were not entirely predictable or under my control, that grew, or died, or dissipated. And then a more time-based practice also led into, ironically, a more social practice.
I like learning from other people and I like learning together with other people. It’s a kind of educational project; I’m really curious and I like experts. Sometimes I find it comforting that somebody might know everything, that everything could be known! And that I might know everything if I had the tenacity and discipline to practice as much as they do, which I never do. So I try to stand near them and ask a lot of questions. I’m especially attracted to people who have a deep curiosity and investment in something that has nothing to do with their job or money. They do it for love, they do it not just as some extreme obsession, but as a way to be in the world. Like people who spend decades memorizing Latin species names, I find really fascinating. What do they know with that level of literacy in a subject? They are the ones who have dug in really deep.
Often in my pieces, I’m not the expert, I’m not teaching anybody else to do anything. I can just be in the crowd and let people do what they normally do, except with a conceptual twist. I have this piece called The Chinatown Foray (2008-2010), where I asked the mycological society in Toronto if we could do a foray—which is what we do every Sunday. We go in the woods, collect species and bring them all back. But could we do a foray in Chinatown, could we do it where there are medicinal shops and grocery stores and markets?
They really liked the idea, a lot of the members are Chinese and they were translating and creating species lists. Some of the women knew how to cook stinkhorns, cauliflower fungus and stuff we weren’t finding in the forest, but that are also species of Ontario and eastern Canada. We brought our guidebooks into the supermarkets, we brought the same tools, our baskets, our magnifying glasses. There were species in our books that were said to be inedible, but they were for sale in Chinatown. They were edible. Guidebooks and the history of naming plants and animals has always been problematic and exclusive, so it was interesting to bring into collision the market and these traditions of naturalist foraging and natural history practices. Also to mix up expertise and important knowledge in ways we hadn’t experienced in the woods.
What is your process like in developing a new work? At what point does a hobby become something that you’re interested in developing into a piece?
I dislike the word hobby, I have to think of a better word. I call them my preoccupations, because they all have their own history and established culture around them, and they’re serious pursuits for people. I guess when they’re not your job, which is the case for most of the practitioners, it’s called a hobby, but it sounds trivial. Like it has no significance, it’s just a pastime. I mean it’s the kind of thing people do for love and with tremendous commitment. If you think about astronomy, and in many pursuits, there are amateurs who are also making significant contributions to a professional field.
My whole life I’ve been interested in learning things. We go to Nova Scotia every year, [my partner] Amish is from there. He wants to run up mountains, which I can’t do. But I was overwhelmed by the moss and the colorful mushrooms everywhere, so I picked up a field guide. It was something I could do when I went. I could learn it, enjoy it, and not get poisoned. Learning the names of things and reading field guides is a special pleasure, it feels like belonging where you are when you know things by name. I love to be in the woods and know the names of plants and mushrooms. I like to stand under the Vancouver sky and know those clouds are cumulus and up there it’s altostratus.
I don’t do these things so I can secretly make them into art, I do them because I’m really invested and I’m curious. I know there will be great insights, tremendous and moving experiences. I took a beekeeping class with my dad. We have two hives in Mississauga that we keep together. I didn’t intend for it to become a work, but I’m at the point now where when I feel something coming on, I go with it. Just recently it’s been apples. This year I’m into amateur pomology and I’m reading apple books and I’m grafting my apple tree and I’m meeting apple community experts like specialty Arborists and Urban Orchardists. And that’s it, I expect it’s going to be art for sure. I’m doing these things increasingly intensely, with increasing enthusiasm, kind of like a serial obsessive, and I can’t help but be an artist in them as I participate. It’s a way of thinking, it’s a way of responding, it’s a way of knowing, it’s a way of being in the world. I can’t help it.
We have a tradition in Western art universities in this moment, teaching students with an emphasis on art historical references, and contemporary artist affinities, and much of my students’ work have these things as their core references. Art is the subject of their works. I’m encouraging my students to gain broader knowledge and interest, to join clubs on campus, like join a horticulture club, tag birds, go on a mushroom foray, work at an insect collection – do something other than looking at art, so you know about something else. So you have a subject, you have an investment in something outside of this self-referential bubble. For me, I trust that if I’m curious and enthusiastic about something, even as an amateur, I bring a new perspective and then I can bring some of the insights from that field back to my home of contemporary art, school and teaching. There’s a meaningful exchange that can happen. And life is the subject.