A Creative Conversation: Stéphanie Ruth & Anna Perach

Drawing on personal experience and folkloric myths, Anna Perach uses a traditional craft technique called tufting to create wearable sculptures that come to life during performances in front of a live audience. 

Anna’s work serves as a mystical antidote to a hyper-rational technocratic reality that has failed humanity systematically since years. Stéphanie Ruth spoke to Anna to find out why her practice is more relevant than ever. In this interview, she reflects on the future of her practice and the development of craft and design in a Covid-19 world…

SR: Hi Anna, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. I would like to first of all find out how you’re doing? The lockdown has just been lifted in London. How have you fared these past four months? 

AP: Hi Stephanie, it’s all good. I mean, it has been quite stressful but I don’t think that has to do directly with the lockdown. What was stressful was not having a nursery and lots of studio visits cancelled, shows postponed, including the Goldsmiths degree show. In the beginning, I thought to myself that it could be nice to have some time –it’s all been too much recently—but, being a full-time mom without the support of a nursery and with everything cancelled, it started to push my buttons a bit.

SR: Did you have the opportunity to work? 

AP: Yes, I was going to the studio. I was lucky enough to have the studio open. I participated in the artists’ supports pledge with the gloves and continued with my projects but on a low key. There were also a few projects for my MFA at Goldsmiths that I needed to finalize.

SR: At the moment, our lives are becoming more digitalized, as we see the world through our screens. On the flip side of that it seems as if we are craving more tactility. What do you think? 

AP: Yes, I definitely feel it in the contemporary art sphere. There is a lot of work produced with clay, ceramics and textile. As well as more work that has to do with folkloric narratives. I guess that the more we feel that the processes of enlightenment, scientific and technological progress are failing us on the level of emotional needs, the more we become drawn to wanting to experience with our senses and to imagine things we’ve been told not to trust, as they are difficult to explain and perhaps can’t be proven beyond the experiential. On a more practical level, I wonder how artists, myself included, can manage to produce work that address one’s senses when the current circumstances are dictating distance – if the spectator can’t have access to the physical work? I’m talking specifically about the lockdown now. Things have been getting a bit easier recently and it seems like shows are gradually reopening but there remains an anxiety that follows me about this situation that is here to stay; that we could be in and out of lockdown continually.

Birth mark, tufted yarn & metal wire, 80x120cm, 2018

SR: You expressed interest in experimenting with domestic objects and collaborating with me on design pieces. Could this be a new means by which to reach an audience? I’d love to hear more about your ideas for working in a domestic setting.  

AP: My work started from the domestic. I had started thinking about how domestic spaces are personal environments and how unconsciously we put ourselves in them. The things we have at home are symbolic. When I saw that you’re venturing into this new project with interior design, I thought it would be great to work together and think about how I can incorporate my work back in a domestic environment and think of it as an installation. I could curate the domestic setting and each object in it, consciously thinking about what kind of symbols are placed. In Israeli culture, it is common to have icons protecting against the evil eye. How do we modernize these symbols? We tend to think that this is something our grandmas do. Or, associate them with less progressive or cultured people. Though now they are appearing more frequently everywhere. How do we take existential fears that we have about getting hurt by different aspects in our life and incorporate them into modern design. I don’t know what the end result would look like but that’s the initial attraction for me—thinking about how to curate an environment together, or if you create an environment with a client, how could I adapt to that space? Perhaps there is a design element to it as well, for instance, how do I work with the structure of the house, what could my contribution be. That dynamic is something I’m interested in.

SR: That would be exciting! We continuously develop new sensations through physical engagement with our surroundings and it would be interesting to see how you challenge this in a private space. For the most part, your work is performative –the wearable sculptures are to be experienced and interacted with and not merely beheld? 

AP:  Definitely. The most interesting observation I had when showing as part of your exhibition ‘Play’ was seeing how the masks fascinated the kids at the opening and their response to them. This is how one can really tell the impact of the work. Adults often have intellectual defences, they’ve been cultured, but kids don’t. It was interesting to see how in the beginning the kids were “freaked out” and hiding behind their parents. Gradually, they became more engaged and playful. Which followed by a sort of aggression and attempts to what seemed as trying to destroy the masks. I remember a scene where one of the kids was running ahead followed by a bunch of kids all trying to catch the masked performer.  It got a bit much and the performer needed help because they were trying to climb all over her. I found that response fascinating. I want the work to draw you in. I want you to get involved in it regardless if it’s three-dimensional or wall-based. I want to create that sort of eeriness as well. 

Mother of Egg, tufted yarn, beading and wooden frame, 90x150cm, 2019.
Photograph: Matt Ashford Studio.
Storia Notturna, Day-long performance.
Photograph: Roberta Segata courtesy of Centrale Fies

SR: Your wearable sculptures definitely provoke a reaction. The audience is transformed from voyeur to participant. 

AP: That’s exactly what I want. As an art lover and participant in culture, in art, I feel sometimes that art and exhibitions act like a puzzle that one has to solve intellectually. You’re made to think: does this reference this or that? I’m not putting that down as it can lead to interesting conversations but for me there is something lacking. I would like to get to that sensual element. I’m fine with my work not being for everyone. I think some people find it quite aggressive. I think about it as a form of transformational space where you can participate in this experience with the performers, with the sculptures and afterwards, you can leave.

SR:  I’d like to ask about your childhood. Did your upbringing influence the way you think about art today? 

AP: I like to give space to feelings. Our emotions have a place, our experiences have a place, which is slightly against what I experienced from my father, who is a scientist and taught me that everything has to have a bottom line, everything must be constructed. Anything slightly more amorphic is hard for him to accept. I was writing about why folklore is needed now and found myself getting really angry with all these people shutting you down. 

SR: What make you angry? 

AP: I was writing about the appearance of folkloric storytelling in contemporary art. The more I was researching, the more I found that the same  patriarchal regime  is responsible for the dismissal of witchcraft, magic, women rights and other elements that didn’t fit with linear progress . Those kinds of things have been moved to the outskirts and considered dangerous. I feel that our world at the moment is very much about what can be capitalized on and less about how we experience and sense. So, I found myself getting angry and feeling restricted. When I think about it, I realize that perhaps my upbringing is partly responsible for these feelings.

SR: I find your re-telling of female folkloric narratives inherently feminist. Why do you think it is important to tell these narratives today? Do you think they resonate with contemporary culture? 

AP: I think that is their role. There are two questions here. In terms of the feminist aspect, it is about that type of thinking, based on intuition and experiential knowledge that has been associated historically mostly with women. It has been pushed aside and labelled as unscientific, not proven and dangerous. For me, it is an attempt to bring those things back. I feel that it definitely resonates with what we’ve been speaking about regarding the pandemic. We’re experiencing the feeling of the end of the world, that things are shifting, changing the way they’ve remained since the Industrial Revolution. This way of life is not working anymore. It’s all collapsing. So, in the sense, I’m trying to bring back the experiential aspect as something that could be an alternative. I read this book called Technic and Magic by Italian philosopher Federico Campagna. 

SR: I don’t know him. Who is he?

AP: He’s contemporary writer, who speaks about the universe of the technic, which is what we spoke about in terms of the restriction of everything being measured in terms of production. This affects  our thinking. It is almost as if everything we do, we try see if we can restrict it into a measured form. Everything becomes economy in a sense, like a factory. This has taken hold of our ability to imagine. Campagna writes that this  period in Western culture is ending now and suggests that the next thing will be the world of magic. He writes about how experiential moments and ancient narratives could inspire a new start. I feel very close to those ideas and was grateful to read something that helps me better understand what I’m thinking as well. 

SR: His ideas sounds like they resonate completely with your work. 

AP:  They resonate with contemporary culture. Even pop culture; you have the popular TV series, ‘Game of Thrones’, which is very much about past universes and magical powers or the other TV series, ‘American Gods’, about the old Gods fighting with the new Gods of technology.  Or the super heroes in the Marvel movies who defend the world? On a subconscious level, it is already all around us. In terms of my practice, the technical labour is a big part of what the work is about. The works are produced manually and each piece is different so they are not something that can be reproduced or fit in to a tight category.

Travel between worlds, installation view, 2020

SR: Do you consider yourself a textile artist?

AP: No, I use textile and this technique in my practice as I feel it’s relevant to what I do and want to achieve. My intention is to give form to some of the ideas we spoken about and less about the exploration of the possibilities of textile. 

SR:  Your work is about stories and the experience of the performance. The wearable sculptures are the vehicle through which you tell stories. If you think of a craft practitioner, their act is primarily to engage with material, its flow, tradition and essence. While the artist takes the medium and challenges or reinterprets it. 

AP: I enjoy the medium as well but the focus is not on how can I push this medium forward, it’s about how do I work with the content I’m interested in within this medium. 

SR: How did you get started with tufting? What did you before? 

AP: Before Goldsmiths, I was doing lots of embroideries. I was interested in how you can use the medium of embroidery, which has this association with the domestic. I wanted to see how I could work with this domestic and craft-like technique to produce something relevant to my life. I like bad taste and kitsch and enjoyed playing around with those connotations. Then at Goldsmiths, they offered a workshop called ‘Constructed Textiles’. I saw the tufting and was immediately eager to try it. The first work was extremely difficult physically to make. I thought that I may never do it again, but I came back and fell in love with it. I like the craft aspect of it. I enjoy the physical part of working hard. I feel like I’m doing something. 

Baba Yaga, tufted yarn & artificial hair, 90x170cm, 2018.
Photograph: Matt Ashford Studio.

SR: Do you have an idea of the story that you’d like the sculptures to tell when you begin working? 

AP: For the most part, I base it on a certain story and have a visual idea. In order to construct something, you have to create a pattern and in order to create a pattern I have to know what I want to do. Somebody has to wear it so I have to think about how it will breathe and move. I prepare a sketch based on a rough idea. The process entails collaborating with various people. Someone helps me construct the patterns. A choreographer helps with the movement and a music producer with the sound. More and more people are getting involved, which is amazing. I’m so appreciative that people take part in my vision. I can’t bring to the table the same knowledge and abilities as somebody who has worked with dance and movement. 

SR: I have found that collaborating with different people is a catalyst for telling new stories and opening up to new possibilities. 

AP: Yeah, exactly. The more I do it, the more confidence I gain to let go and become adventurous with how I present the works. I was doing rehearsals for an upcoming performance recently and saw one of the sculptures lying on the floor there with its folds and it looked beautiful. But, I felt a bit frightened to show it like that. As an outsider looking at it, it may be interesting because there is something alive about it. I am developing more courage now to be like, okay, I’ll do the work that needs to be done, follow it and try not to push it into some sort of preconceived form. I have that tendency as well as that’s how I grew up. I can be very organized, very constructed but also have this fight in me, like fuck that, I’m going to see how it goes. 

Mother of Egg, detail, tufted yarn, beading and wooden frame, 90x150cm, 2019.
Photograph: Matt Ashford Studio.

SR: I noticed that you changed the way you present your sculptures. They stand on special wooden legs now that look ergonomic and bird-like, almost in a state of movement, instead of the more traditional-looking plinths. What made you change this? 

AP: I didn’t have a better solution than those plinths we used two years ago at ‘Play’. I realised since then that I would like to create a sense of tension with the sculpture, uncertainty about whether it will suddenly move, whether it is alive. During the performances, I started paying attention to postures that I liked and seemed effective. I thought to imitate those positions with the wooden sculptures standing in a way to give them that potential kind of liveliness. This is something I will progress with because I think it’s not the final form. It will continue developing. What I’m doing now is to think about what they actually do during the performance. What’s happening, what’s the dynamic between them? For the next project, I’m planning a performance with the objects in the get-go and have the whole picture in mind. I know what will happen in terms of the sculptural elements and with the performance. 

SR: You sound like a director creating a mise-en-scène. 

AP: It’s exciting because I was thinking about  becoming a theatre producer or designer at one point. I studied theatre for a year a long time ago and it was not really what I wanted to do but I love the Ballets Russes and early 20th century avant-garde theatre and dance. I’m very inspired by those.

SR: Have you looked at Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet? Schlemmer conceived of everything in his ballets, from the costume to how it affected the dancer’s movement to the set design. He conceived it all as a total work of art, a Gesamtkunstwerk. His motives with the Triadic Ballet were to realize an absolute art form that would lead man towards a higher awareness that united his soul, mind and spirit – the new man, as he called it. 

AP: Yeah, I love it. I’m so inspired by that. I think the discussion about the post human is relevant. It is the same thing over and over again. I want to be part of that tradition as well and gradually start to incorporate those elements. I like thinking about how to create an environment thinking about the light, the movement, how it all moves together with the garment. I’m starting to step aside from solely creating sculptures into thinking about environments and movement as central part of it. In my fantasy, in 20 years I will have this huge team of people and we’re all going to do these amazing productions.

SR: I can’t wait to see. 

About the artist 

Ukrainian-born, Israeli artist, Anna Perach lives and works in London. In 2008, Anna received her Bachelor of Fine Art from Bezalel, Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem. While practicing art Anna developed an interest in the field of creative work with people challenged by mental health difficulties. This led to a Diploma in Art therapy and counselling. In 2014 Anna relocated to the UK where she continued her artistic development taking part in a Master in Fine Art program at Goldsmiths, University of London. She graduated in July 2020. 

Anna has exhibited in various spaces in the UK, Europe and Israel. In 2018, Anna participated in ‘Play’, an exhibition curated by Stéphanie Ruth (@studio__sr) with the aim to engage both adults and children in the experience and spirit of play. The result was an immersive exhibition playground. In 2019 Anna took part in several group shows including Apparatus at Packham 24 photo fair London and Textus ex Machina in a project space in Budapest. That same year she was also one of the finalists of the Mother Art Prize, Mostyn open 21 and Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize.