The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with Brigitte Parusel by Fiona Grady

Recorded at the artist’s studio

February 2016

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

FG   In your current studio practice you have been folding paper and metal to create geometric structures; can you tell me about the starting point for these pieces?

BP   The starting point for these pieces is a pattern of intersecting circles, it’s a grid that I have been working with for a long time. The folded pieces are part of an ongoing series of experimentation using this pattern. I came across this pattern, which is called the Flower of Life, in a book on sacred geometry. I was instantly interested in exploring the structural possibilities of this circular grid.

FG   Why did you choose this pattern in particular?

BP   It looks really simple, flower-like and decorative, and could be easily dismissed because of that. But when you look closer and work with the pattern, there’s more to it. Complex geometric structures can be built with it, the five platonic solids for example, just by using compass and straight edge. I love the practicality of this pattern. The more I have worked with it, the more I have become interested in geometric systems.

FG   Do you see the pattern as a tool rather than an end point?

BP   Yes, it’s a tool, definitely. It's a tool for the creation of form, shape and structure. But it also deconstructs or dissects a shape into its components, sides and angles for example, and shows the relationship between them and the whole.

Study, 2013, Paper, 15cm x 32cm x 13cm.

Space by numbers, 2012, Pencil, bamboo and paint, 150cm x 80cm x 20cm.

FG   In a sense, is the pattern an instrument to put your idea into place? In your artworks Space by Numbers, you drew the grid directly onto the wall and installed a three-dimensional wooden structure over it. With knowledge of your practice, I would say that this is the most literal translation from the idea into being, but are you happy for your audience to know what the grid looks like?

BP   This work is part of a series in which the original grid is altered for the experimentation with random-looking structures. By showing the circular grid it becomes clear that the structures are based on a system. It exposes the thinking process, and I’m happy for the audience to follow it. Because this pattern is a tool and can be used in many different ways, the result will always depend on the choices that individual artists make.

FG   That was one of the questions I wanted to ask you. There is a sense of using the same grid over and over again, so is it possible that each time you will have an entirely different outcome, or are there limitations to the pattern?

BP   There are so many aspects to this system. By changing the material or process of working with the pattern, new possibilities for experimentation open up, and the visual outcome is different. I am interested to know what will happen when I think I have exhausted the possibilities of the pattern - where do I go beyond that point?

FG   As I understand it, you started learning the patterns by drawing them in sketchbooks, and then they became scored, folded drawings on sheets of paper, which, as you’ve said, now have moved into these metal sculptures.

BP   Yes, first I experimented with the grid system as a blueprint or construction plan to draw geometric shapes and build spatial structures. Like my work Space by Numbers, or my installations of flexible systems. The folded works were a new departure, where the grid itself is becomes part of the material.

FG   Could you explain to me what you mean by flexible systems?

BP   It's a series of work, in which I have deconstructed three geometric figures into a flexible system made of metal tubing. I build each figure, a startetrahedron, an icosidodecahedron and an octahedron, and cut them into their components: sides and corner pieces. This allows me to experiment with scale and form. By increasing the length of the sides the form extends in size, and by rotating the corner elements new shapes emerge. I can build structures that fill the whole space and can be entered and experienced from the inside. By combining the corner pieces of the different shapes I can create random spatial structures. It's a fantastic system for experimentation.

Construction, Icosidodecahedron, 2007, Mild steel tubing and paint, 290cm x 320cm x 320cm.

FG In the past you’ve described to me the process of folding the paper as very instinctive, you score the grid and allow your hands to follow the lines, folding as you go. It sounds as though the structures can be folded in different directions, and that rather than planning the movement, you allow it to evolve?

BP   That’s exactly what it is. I have usually an initial idea, create a limitation or condition that I test for a while. The form emerges from the interaction with the paper and the scored lines. I have experimented, for example, with folding randomly or in an ordered way, with different levels of complexity. I'm interested in what the pattern is capable of, but also in the behaviour of simple components and their potential to form complex structures.

Through working with this pattern I became interested in systems thinking and molecular biology. I have looked at protein folding, for example, and tried to recreate exciting geometric structures. But inspiration can also come just from something I see. Man Ray’s photograph of Helen Tamiris, for example, led to experimenting with folding, based on her mad hair. (laughs)

Testing Random, ‘Helen Tamiris’, 2013, paper, 50cm x 120cm x 20cm.

Model for an Unspecified Building 1, 2014, Mirrored aluminium, 62cm x 76cm x 99cm.

FG   For many years you’ve worked with metal. When you started with this project by moving into paper, did it feel like the right medium for it?

BP   Yes, when I discovered that a curved line can be folded I became obsessed with folding in paper. But in the back of my mind, I always had the question of whether it was possible to fold a curved line in metal, so it became a challenge for me to find out.

FG   The paper pieces never felt like maquettes, they are artworks in their own right. It’s natural that you would want to create these pieces in metal too. Do you find that each material has its own limitations?

BP   Yes it does; metal has its own rules, its limitations and also its strengths. What I can do in paper, I can’t necessarily recreate in metal. When I work with paper it’s very intuitive and I let the form emerge from the pattern. The metalwork is completely planned and rationalised. I have to work with much simpler forms; all of my pieces are hand folded from one sheet so I have to make sure that I can physically fold that particular shape. The advantage of metal is that I can work on a larger scale and the fold will stay in place. And of course the metal pieces are much more durable.

FG   When you decided to work with folding metal curves you had to find new technologies to enable this process. In particular, you did a residency with the company Robofold. How did this come about?

BP   I found out about Robofold during my research into curved folding in metal. They specialise in curved folding in metal using digital technology and robots. I contacted them and we arranged the residency. It was fantastic working with these amazing guys and to have this shared interest, being excited about folding a curve, which is a bit nerdy! It was the first time that I had come into contact with parametric design. They helped me to develop my pattern into a digital file so that it could be scored and cut by a CNC router. This allowed me to work with aluminium. When I started folding metal I used mild steel, and cut and scored the pattern by hand. This was hard work and limiting. I find it really interesting how digital technology can be integrated into, and can enrich the making of artwork.

Loft, 2015, Mirrored aluminium and paint, 14cm x 45cm x 40cm.

Loop, 2015, Mirrored aluminium, paint and rubber coating, 14cm x 45cm x 40cm.

FG   Is there a conflict in working with different materials to maintain your idea?

BP   No, it’s an integral part of my practice. I enjoy experimenting to see how a new material behaves and how it can be used. It automatically leads to negotiating with the material and discovering what it will allow me to do.The mild steel pieces have a very different feel to those made from aluminium, for example. In mild steel the work looks earthy or grounded, while the aluminium pieces are very precise, look sharp and seem light. I see myself more as a translator between an idea, the material and the process; using a new material presents a challenge.

FG   Until recently the majority of your work has been monochrome, but colour has now begun to appear in your work. What prompted this change?

BP    I have used colour already in my spatial structures and installations to show related elements; colour acts as a signifier in my work. In the folded work I have used colour to emphasise that there are two sides to sheet material. The movement and twists of the material are not visible in the paper works, where both sides are white.

I also made a new discovery when I painted the folded piece. I found that with a slight change of angle or fold, the tone changed. The surfaces reflected light and the colour was always different. It’s like painting with light; it made me aware how different the colour can appear in this form. I will work more with this.

FG   From seeing a few of the pieces, the colour can have quite deceptive qualities. When you look at the sculptures it’s easy to assume that it’s one material, but on closer inspection you realise it’s actually made from paper or metal. I think it’s interesting that not only are you using colour to highlight the structure, you also affecting its material qualities. Are you interested in the connotations of colour?

BP   I choose colours very carefully. It’s intuitive and I have my favourites. For my aluminium pieces I used ‘loud’ colours, which can stand their own next to the shiny mirrored aluminium. Both sides should be equally strong - this creates tension between them. I feel that the colour turns the sheet material itself into a three-dimensional object.

Testing Complexity 1, 2015, Mirrored aluminium, paint and rubber coating, 60cm x 69cm x 78cm.

FG   One of the things that stands out in your work is that it’s very aesthetic and beautiful; is that an intended outcome?

BP   No, I’m working with an existing pattern and this is its visual language. Because the pieces are abstract, they focus the attention on lines, surfaces and form, and the relation between these elements. I enjoy that kind of visual language or beauty. For me the folded works are not about creating beautiful objects but exploring the possibilities of a system.

FG   With the work there is a suggestion that the scale is actually irrelevant and they could actually be tiny pieces or very large. Would you like to work on a larger scale? For example, could you see these pieces as sculptures in public spaces?

BP   I would love for the pieces to be on a bigger scale. Scale changes the presence of a piece in the environment and also the experience of it. This can't be imagined but needs to be experienced through the physical object.

FG   One of the things you’ve said in the past is that your work references architecture. Is there a conversation about whether they could actually be buildings or structures?

BP   Architecture has a big influence on my work - some of the titles refer to it. Two of the aluminium pieces are called Model for an unspecified building. So yes, I can easily imagine them on a scale where the structure could be entered. But so far I haven't got the resources for that. I can fold metal by myself only up to a certain size. Building and folding on an architectural scale would involve working with engineers and with (for me) new manufacturing methods. That would be amazing, very challenging.

FG   It’s quite exciting - the possibilities of what you could do with this; this is on a small scale but the vastness it could move into...

BP    Someone said it would be great to have this as a stage or as a public space. I can easily see them as public sculptures – definitely.

FG    It doesn’t have to be the next Sydney Opera house?

BP    No, maybe the next Serpentine Pavilion? (Laughs)

Equal Opposites, 2015, Mild steel, 53cm x 74cm x 200cm.

FG   I wanted to briefly discuss some of the influences on your work; I know that you’ve been reading the writings of Josef Albers recently.

BP   Josef Albers is one of the artists who really interests me; others are Lygia Clark and Ellsworth Kelly, for example. My favourite works by Albers are his Structural Constellations, a series he worked on obsessively for many years. He created endless variations based on the same grid system. The grid is not visible, but its presence is felt in the structures and spaces that are created from it. He worked within a very restricted framework that he set for himself, and it's amazing to see the variety of results that come out of this approach. The book on Albers that I've been reading recently is To open eyes, which shows his work as a teacher. It has wonderful examples of works made by his students in the exercises of his courses.

FG   You’re taking part in a group exhibition organised by Russell Terry at Lewisham ArtHouse: ‘ The Garden of Forking Paths’ which opens in mid-March – could you tell me a bit about the project?

BP   It’s a really interesting show and I'm very pleased to be part of it. I like Russell's idea for the exhibition - the making process as impossibility. It's about the difficulty of translating an idea into physicality, which is at the heart of the creative process.

FG   Were you invited to participate in this exhibition because Russell also works with the same patterns as you? It’ll be interesting to see your work alongside Russell's; he has a similar starting point but with quite different outcomes.

BP I met Russell when we both showed in the exhibition 'Silent Movies' at Q Park last October. We started talking about the fact that we both use the same pattern, and we were very excited about it. He works with this pattern very differently. I think that’s the beauty of geometric systems, they have a really enormous potential to be used in so many different ways in painting or sculpture. It's worth pointing out that in this group exhibition each of the artists has a different starting point; we are the only two using this pattern.

FG   Thank you Brigitte, I’m looking forward to seeing the new exhibition.

All images copyright Brigitte Parusel