This is Part 2 of an interview with Toronto-based artist Diane Borsato. Click here to read Part 1.
There’s such a range of tensions and contrasts in your work. In particular, I find it striking that although a particular project could take years of research, learning and networking, it might only be up for a day or a single occurrence.
Sometimes there’s no immediate audience, too. Like Terrestrial/Celestial (2009-2010) was just astronomers, mushroomers, and a couple people from the gallery, which is all we needed. We can’t have an audience to something like that, it would interfere. For me they’re conceptual—it was an event, a story for art history, an idea that was enacted. They’re not always performative, like for an audience.
There’s something very special in that moment when everything comes together and then is gone.
I guess it’s like a dance. Sometimes I think of myself as a choreographer. I can’t control what everyone does, but for that work, I basically said “Mushroomers you do this in the morning and astronomers you do this at night. We’re going to do this in the same day and we’re going to go look down and look up.” It’s a gesture. We’re going to think with our senses and think with our imaginations and do that in one day, so it’s a kind of composition or choreography. But there’s a lot of agency on behalf of the participants. And I learn more about the work while it unfolds, and after looking at the documentation.
Like with the beekeeping, I realized the comportment of beekeepers and their ability to affect the temper of other creatures and vice versa. The more I got into it, tried to explain it and re-enact it as a performance, the more it became clear that this was meditating. This was just meditation. And I’m not a meditator in a formal way, so I couldn’t really do it without the support of a guide.
But what was interesting was that beekeepers were just so good at it. You can’t just ask anyone to do silent performance art for five hours and stay still. I mean, there was meditative walking in it too, but the beekeepers kind of just got it instantly, which was really amazing. And together, 100 of them sitting silently (for Your Temper, My Weather at the AGO in 2013), focused and calm, breathing slowly—that was a very moving thing.
I was curious about your work Cemetery (2015), in which you eat an entire ice cream cone while standing in a graveyard. What brought that piece about and what were your thoughts while making it?
I sometimes make these huge pieces with a hundred people and it’s really stressful; a year of emailing and establishing trust and practicing, which is exhausting and stressful. And then I have to make these little impulsive pieces that are done in a day, that I have control over. This work was actually made in a few days, but it was one of those impulsive, Ì-just-need-to-make-something pieces because all the flowers were blooming in Toronto in the spring and it’s so short. I made that piece and I sent it to a former professor, a really interesting scholar and an expert in Japanese gardens, zen landscape aesthetics, ceramics, and so many other things like radio and French astronomy, Allen Weiss. And he told me it was the most surprising expression of mono no aware that he’s ever seen.
Mono no aware is what the Japanese invoke with cherry blossoms, an awareness of the ephemerality of life. An awareness that death comes, that this is brief, that time is passing. I think it’s something that blossoms will always evoke. I’m not easily in this moment. I’m kind of like “it’s almost over” as soon as it’s the most beautiful. It’s so brief and so wonderful, and the brevity is part of the beauty. As I understand it, mono no aware is a feeling that you get when you have that experience, when you see the cherry blossoms falling like snow. That sad and poignant feeling. And I think that’s what the ice cream was about. The feeling of your body and the pleasure of this sensuous sweetness, creaminess, and cold. Ice cream is such an immediate, almost basic bodily pleasure. And the cemetery is, well, the end of all those things.
In a past interview, the writer mentioned your work Boquet (2006-ongoing), where you steal flowers from a neighbor’s yard. I remember they called your work very gentle, which was surprising to me, because you were still stealing.
Yeah, exactly. I do worry when the work is described as sweet, or dismissed as trite. Though indeed the gestures are very small. I did a piece a long time ago when I was a grad student called Touching 1000 People (2003). I had read this study about how people can be touched really insignificantly, like when you’re getting change from somebody and you don’t even remember being touched, but it actually affects your experience of the situation and how you feel about that person. I was curious about gesture at its most minimal. What is the tiniest gesture that has an effect in the world. I think I’m at a threshold of sensitivity, where I’m really curious about small gestures and the reverberations. So sometimes they seem like small gestures, but when you focus, there’s a lot to explore. It’s almost like a minimalist approach. It’s a unique place for visual art to explore.
But in terms of gentleness, it’s actually a mode of moving, of touch—that I do aspire to in work, and study in my pieces, I think. A combination of lightness in an act—that moves and feels, that knows, or cares, that pushes forward or through…Maybe it’s an antidote to aggression, a proposal for an alternative mode of exacting influence or power. It shows how much is possible, and visible—with small openings and discreet rearrangements.