In conversation with

Libby Billings

Libby Billings is an artist working predominantly with moving image, and more recently paint. She sent us a couple of recent drawings and also stills of a newer moving image work, both are the result of her continuing practice, delving into the ‘grain.’ We talk more about the infinite, nice art and getting gobbled up by the earth.

Cyddie: What art you got going on?

Libby: I’ve got some soil and some grain.

You sent us some screenshots of some moving image work and some drawings.

They’re about the same thing, but they’re executed in almost opposite ways.
They were done quite a long time apart as well. I think whatever I do almost always ends up being about the same thing anyway, even when I think it’s not.

They’re both basically about grain. One more literally, what with the soil and the grain of the camera, and through an embodied camera. I can literally look down at myself in the grain. On the surface of the image as well as within it.

Drawings are more grounded within… so that Ferdinand Hodler painting I like. Sometimes it’s called Communion with the Infinite sometimes it’s called Communion with Infinity. You have a figure in a landscape but the background, you can’t really quite tell what the perspective is. It seems to go up, but also back. 

Ferdinand Hodler painting. A nude woman has her arms outstretched. She is turned sideways. The background is a deep green, with no perspective.
Communion with the Infinite (1892)
by Ferdinand Hodler

It has a really weird perspective and the woman in it is communing with the infinite, she’s having an experience in the landscape with something apparently invisible, which I interpret as the invisible thing itself being the landscape. Which is why the background is quite interesting because you’re like absorbed into the weird perspective of it. Not just the figure in it, but myself when I’m looking at it.

So is the background infinite? Is that part of the perspective because it just keeps going?

Yeah! Because you never find or locate it properly. I’ve done quite a few drawings with that as the background. With these two I copied the background from that and the figure I drew from a Matisse book as well, so that's one of Matisse's nudey ladies as well. She’s sort of reclining into it, she looks a bit wrong in it, it’s not the right kind of figure for the background, but I quite liked it cos she’s just like… it's a double thing with the perspective I guess. How can she be leaning into it when you don’t know what way up it is anyway?

Oil Pastel drawing. A nude woman is reclining into a green background, she is bright pink, with an acid smiley face.
Ideally I would do a better job of the background and it would have the same feeling as the original one. So then you’re both looking at somebody being absorbed into it, and also yourself, trying to navigate it, being absorbed into it.

Why the smiley faces?

I had a reason at the time. It’s actually not because I can’t draw faces. I think if you think about the smiley in terms of the acid smiley and what it represents as experience and oneness, and then situating it within that ‘infinite’ landscape, what that might feel like. I guess I kind of put it on as a symbolic representation of that feeling. But I think it does just look like I can’t draw faces. Which I also can’t.

Oil Pastel drawing. A nude woman is reclining into a green background, she is bright pink, with an acid smiley face.
Drawings by Libby Billings

How does the video relate?

The video is a totally different way of addressing the absorption: wanting to be in the grain. The grain as in the soil and the photographic grain and if you were printing in the dark room the projection of it. It's got the embodied camera, when the viewer is like watching it back they assume your position.

I was reading this book about Ana Mendieta, obviously her work is from a different perspective, but it's that feeling of like it’s very visceral. In the book it said because it’s a document and she never manned the camera herself, when she would go back to look at the film or the image she would be looking as herself, so as a viewer you also assume her position. I thought this was interesting. It kind of confirmed some things for me that I felt about it.

I don’t think I could make a piece of work that successfully does the thing, but I think I could create a desire in somebody else for it. Which is all I have anyway.

I think with the soil and the hands you do create that like I wanna touch it and get in it. In the video it is layered up, is that important to the infinite element of it?

I first did that when we had a crit at the start of lockdown. I thought oh god I’ve got loads of videos and I want to show a snippet of it. At the time I wasn’t sure what to do with it all anyway, and how to represent it in a way that wasn’t just linear. Even though it was just a thing I put together, I think that's how it should be as well. All the things happening at once, again, it's about the wholeness of it. The timeline of it. The overall experience.

Black and white still of a video. There are layers of videos, some show natural things like leaves and mud, others show body parts such as feet and hands.
Black and white still of a video. There are layers of videos, some show natural things like leaves and mud, others show body parts such as feet and hands.
Stills of Billings’ moving image work

If we were in before times and you had the opportunity to install it how would you place it? When I saw it in an online exhibition the screen was on the ground.

Eugenia put it like that in our online exhibition. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that, it was the obvious thing to do. It is THE ground. Hopefully I would project it larger and cover the whole floor, if it was projected in a darkened room it would also be like the projected image in the dark room.

When you say wholeness, I feel when something is grander it feels more whole.

Yeah, it gobbles you up.
And also the desire to occupy that space. In Ana Mendieta’s work she’s making the shape of her body in the earth, so the line between it becomes invisible. She’s merged with it in that sense, it’s an impossible space, that's inside yourself but also the earth. I don’t know where the feeling comes from, but obviously she feels it too.

She got gobbled up too. Have you turned more or less to your practice during lockdown?

I’ve gone through phases. At the start I was filming, then I had a massive gap where I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even think about it. Now, I think I’m not making much, but I’m definitely thinking about it more and gaining more clarity on it. I feel like if I make stuff it takes a while for my brain to understand what it means and I can understand it better in hindsight.

I also have a massive problem with the video too. Because I wanted the grain, I hate that it became stylised in a way. I think it gets in the way of it a bit, gets in the way too much of what it should be doing. The actual thing will be slower, and lure you in so you don’t perhaps notice as much.

Maybe, the grain represents an in-between space. And it’s like a layer before your underneath.

It reminds me of those magic eye pictures. You look in the grain and notice little things moving.

I did another painting before, with the Hodler background. And put text on it that said “Outside is Inside”. Not sure what it means yet.

I like how you use the Hodler background throughout.

I think it will be a recurring Motif.

Are there any films, books or pieces art that got you through lockdown?

At the start of lockdown, when I was filming, I started off reading Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing. Derek Jarman is on the cover, his face coming out of loads of grit. It’s obvious why I would like that. She writes about Derek Jarman, Georgia O’Keefe, and Ana Mendieta.

Cover of Olivia Laing's book Funny Weather. The cover is pink. In the middle is a black and white image of a face emerging from the earth.
Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency 
by Olivia Laing

After that I got Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, he wrote it like a diary, after he found out he had AIDs, talking about his garden. I also got a new Georgia O’Keefe book the other day, called Georgia O’Keefe at Home. I really like her paintings but I like them more in the context of seeing her ranches and all her skulls and stuff. It’s just really nice. Sometimes you just wanna see something nice.

I think in this time of like, the shared trauma of a pandemic, I just want to look at something nice. I don’t want something that’s going to confront me too much right now.

I don’t wanna overthink things. I think the best art is when you can just look at it and think ‘Yeah.’ I don’t really like things that are too obsessed with their own context. Just give me all the nice stuff.

Black and white photograph. Georgia O'Keefe is in her ranch wearing a long dress. The walls are adorned with animal skulls.
Georgia O’Keefe

I feel like where you are reading about Jarman’s garden and you like to see inside O’Keefe’s ranch, it's like your work, you just wanna get in.

Yeah! There’s a quote in the Georgia O’Keefe book that says something like ‘you talk about my flower as if I see the flower how you see the flower’ and then it’s like ‘you don’t’. I like that, because then it becomes about inner. It’s not to do with some exterior thing, it’s to do with her experience of it. Her house is also part of her experience. Even though she painted what she saw, we still see something different.

Visit Libby’s website here