INTERVIEWED BY Cheri Morris
Cape Town-based Jonathan Silverman is a visual artist who works primarily in the mediums of painting, digital painting and video. His career spans a host of interesting cities and residencies, including one he just completed at Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy. We caught up with him to find out more about it, his exploration of the space between virtual and physical reality, what inspires his work and more.
Who are you and what drives your work as an artist and a human?
Personal identity is complex. You can avoid the question for a long time before it comes back to bite you in the behind. I believe it’s thanks to living these past few years in South Africa that I have started asking myself more honest questions about my own identity. I’m addicted to observing people, and like observing a tree or watching a dance, I try to become and perhaps embody that which I observe. So I fall in love with people and places, and I try to become them, momentarily. I like to think that empathy can come from this. The central subject of my work is Nature – what is it, and in what way do we as humans think we are separate or a part of it? Its complexity, strangeness and wonder make me want to continue making and exploring its impossible mystery. Essentially though, it is the work itself and the surprises it brings that become the engine for creating new work.
You’ve just finished up an artist residency with Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy. Can you tell us a bit about it?
The people that I met at Palazzo Monti were fantastic. They encourage and help you to create in absolute freedom, in what are incredible surroundings. Edoardo himself is a real dynamo who pours energy into the project and injects the place with the feeling that a lot is possible. Brescia itself is a small yet bustling town filled with Roman ruins, renaissance architecture and beautiful art, as well as some reminders of its past in the form of monuments and buildings created during the fascist regime. If one delves into it, the past can be a strong reminder of what we can learn and what we should leave behind. Since this territory has a documented history that goes back over millennia, Italian artists are still dealing with these questions.
Your work explores the space between virtual and physical reality. How did you come to this fascination?
It is a fascination and something else, like a constant awareness of a mortifyingly banal phenomenon. Almost half of the inhabitants on this planet carry around a little black mirror full of wonder and knowledge. I’m interested in how our experience of physical reality marries with our everyday virtual/digital one, and how they affect one another. I do this by looking at patterns and types of (n)ature, because it is nature itself that we are falling into and out of. Therefore, the main focus in my work is nature and our place within it – but not the other way around.
Having lived for a few years in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, I began to appreciate that nothing should be taken for granted and that the systems that sustain us in larger cities are fragile and can be easily affected by natural phenomena. Our current existential ecological crisis is one of the big reasons why I choose to look specifically at nature outdoors, that of the wild, and think about how our physiological selves are becoming increasingly divorced from our environment.
I believe, that as individuals and in our societies, we are going through a critical transformation, where we are caught somewhere in between our digital personas and the realisation that we need to be more connected to the rhythms of our natural world. We are living in a paradox because digital technology is distancing us from our environment and it is connecting us more to ourselves and to others.
You have lived and created in a number of interesting places. Are there any notable experiences you’ve had in any that have shaped you as an artist?
All of the places I have lived in have shaped me in profound ways. While on a long artist residency in India, there is one specific experience that was etched into my mind: One day in the muslim quarter in New Delhi, I witnessed Sufis who were singing towards the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya, a 13th-century enlightened individual. He was a saint who is known to have spread a message of tolerance and kindness to anyone, from any denomination. It made it clearer to me that our literal interpretations of traditions, religions and ideologies are so superfluous and not in line with acceptance.
I’ve lived in bigger cities, mainly London, and there is somewhat of a cool detachment that permeates these huge machines. I enjoy some good sarcasm and proper humour, but when it comes down to it, I personally believe that the time for being disillusioned, detached and too cool to speak plainly is a bit over right now. People need more honesty, sincerity and real human connection. The virtual sphere is a comfortable, sterile way for trying to be real, but ultimately it is a quasi reality, and we are aware of that now more than ever before. I suppose it is experiences like these that make me who I am and in many ways inform my work. By making physical work, I try to pour what I have personally been through into it, like loss and love, or longing and trauma.
Take us through your artistic process. Do you begin with an idea or do you just begin?
My process and routines have become an important part of my life because they give me rhythms that construct my day. Different times of the day lend themselves to specific types of making. The ideas in my work stay similar but slowly evolve. I don’t force them. The concept is clear and a steady foundation allows for complexity. I begin with making marks. I gather images; drawn, taken or collected. Then I collage. Then I find space and compose. I cut it, paste it, and work into it. Then I start the process all over again. The negative spaces in my work gain value and meaning through repetition and I express different things in the in-between when I draw, paint or make a digital piece.
Who or what inspires you and why?
Good and incomprehensible work, mine or other’s. Sometimes by climbing a mountain, listening to a podcast or music and by the strangeness of a shadow. There is nothing less inspiring to me than a very clever, didactic notion. I keep in motion by reminding myself that only questions are interesting and demand a response but in art, for me, answers are a dead end.
Describe the physical space in which you are most creative.
I’ve worked in all sorts of spaces. I once worked in a drying room for tobacco, which basically looked like a black pit with only one small window, 10 metres high. My ideal kind of workspace is an organic environment, in a constant state of becoming. After some time, a space acquires a buzz and a hum – little bits of writing on the table talk to the sketch on the wall, that flirts with editing software on the laptop, that spits on a print on the floor.
What is your proudest moment thus far? Your most prized goals for the future?
My proudest moment by far right now is that someone I worked with and mentored for a few years won a prize for his charcoal drawings. It made me proud that what means so much to me, means so much for him, and it has meant something to others as well. As for my own goals, I would like to create larger environments, show in more spaces that are not strictly commercial and collaborate with more talented people on meaningful projects.
What can we expect next?
I am working on a large painting and smaller drawings in a studio in Milan, which I am very fortunate to use during my time here. Then there is a long video piece I am working on, which will be shown in a sort of response to a piece by Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, whose work could not be further away from my own. A collaboration with fashion designer Massimo Giorgetti is also on the cards. He is a keen collector and connector who discovered my work through Palazzo Monti, so there are some exciting prospects ahead.