Reclaiming Solace: An Interview with Ryan Christopher | Hosted by Millie Norman

Exploring race, territory, land and faith through a framework inspired by the poetics of time and the literature of Créolité, Christopher's work crafts a visual language that champions the dismantling of modes of silencing, homogenising and injustice. As his feature in the 2021 Coventry Biennial edges closer, we speak to the artist about his engagement with the literary, the relationship between subject matter and spaces of display, and his reclamation of the consoling power of nature for Black British identities.

Opacity - Ryan Christopher (2020)

MN: Next year, you will be the first undergraduate student to ever be featured in the Coventry Biennial – what has this experience been like so far?

RC: The whole experience has been really cool so far. It’s given me a lot to look forward to and the making process for the work has been equally rewarding. The director and one of the curators there have been really supportive of my practice, they really understand what I’m trying to do with it. It’s a very beautiful thing when someone relates to your work.

MN: You are a multidisciplinary artist. How do each of your practices (printing, painting, sculpture, video etc) interact or intersect? Does the idea or sentiment behind a work influence the medium you choose?

RC: I’ve found that all of these practices speak very similar visual/conceptual/auditory languages, so they creolize and communicate with each other very organically. I often play with the notion that the structures surrounding specific mediums can be deconstructed and repurposed, with each medium carrying its own conventions. Disrupting these is interesting to me - painterly languages in films, sculptural languages in photographs etc.

My making process varies a lot - the idea behind the work will often influence the medium that I choose, but there are many instances where an idea or connection would be realised after I take time to think about works that I made very instinctively. It’s a phenomenon that brings me a lot of joy, especially when connections are made with things that I’ve been reading/watching, or references to self-histories and memories.

LEFT: Arabesques for Turmeric - Ryan Christopher (2020); RIGHT: A Man Escaped (2019)

MN: I recently posed this question on a video art panel we hosted on the blog: In a gallery space, total comprehension of video work is difficult – viewers enter the space and encounter the piece at different points, and the duration in which they might stay is variable. With the increased accessibility of platforms like Vimeo as a means through which video artists can show their work, the artist is given increased autonomy of the way in which the viewer receives the work, because of a definitive start and end. What role does linear structure play when you are making your work? Do you account for different possibilities of encountering the work – or enjoy the idea of having a plurality of ways your work might be consumed? You have said that your work engages with the ‘poetics of time’ – does this interact with your use of video? How does it differ from the rest of your predominately ‘still’ practice?

RC: That’s a really interesting question. The moving image works that I’ve made have always been intentionally non-linear, void of any explicit narrative structure. Despite this, I like having control over the environment where my work is viewed as there’s so many factors to consider (the screen size, the light levels, the acoustics of the space, the seating etc.). Platforms like Vimeo are great for circulation, but I do like control over these other factors, and as long as people are informed of screening times it’s all good for me, so I guess I don’t really account for many different possibilities of encountering the work.

Yes definitely, the poetics of time plays a huge part in my use of video, I’m interested in the way that time functions outside of modernity. This interest permeates both my video works and my still works. Both are trying to convey a sense of this time, either in the works ‘aura’, or through the process of making it. It’s the sort of time that is present in nature, and many of the films made by Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson.

MN: You have displayed your work both in white cube spaces and in the open air, surrounded by nature. What role does space play in the display phase of your practice? How does it change the work?

RC: Space is very important to me; I’ve found that even the most minute changes in positions have really drastic impacts on the presence of the work and how it’s received. Some places and positions feel right for the work and others cause it to lose the aura that I intended for it. It’s like a structuralist approach to positioning I guess, where the things surrounding the work give it a level of meaning - that could be trees/grass, or white walls. There’s something metaphysical about it.

Sundial - Ryan Christopher (2020)

I want to make it normal for black British experience to exist outside of urban environments. Being deprived of the sensory experiences of nature - with all of its benefits on wellbeing and mental health - should not be normal. I want to cultivate a culture of resistance through the reclamation of solace in nature.

MN: In your artist statement, you mention the impact of the literary movement Créolité on your work. How does your work, or your process, engage with the literary, or with language itself?

RC: My work often results from the thoughts that emerge whilst I’m reading or listening, so in that sense, it engages with it very directly. I’m interested in the way that words can be charged with meaning in the same way as objects and images, so I enjoy playing around with language in titles and videos, using language as a material. The poetic languages within my work and processes are also a result of an ongoing discourse with literature and language.

MN: The authors of Eloge de la créolité, published in 1989, describe Créolité as “an annihilation of false universality, of monolinguism, and of purity”, in response to the monolithic approach to Caribbean identity that the preceding movement Négritude fostered. In what ways is your engagement with the rural in your work a commentary or critique on preconceived or homogeneous notions of British Blackness?

RC: Yes they’re amazing, I highly recommend that book. I see my engagement with the rural is a poetic act of resistance to these notions; I want to make it normal for black British experience to exist outside of urban environments. The theorists and writers behind the Créolité movement were looking for ways forward and I’m trying to do the same. Being deprived of the sensory experiences of nature - with all of its benefits on wellbeing and mental health - should not be normal. I want to cultivate a culture of resistance through the reclamation of solace in nature.

Amen - Ryan Christopher (2020)

MN: Silence, space, faith and time play a significant role in your work – have these elements been altered or amplified by the solitude we have experienced in lockdown?

RC: I’d say that those elements have all been amplified in a really beautiful way. There’s been a lot of ‘silence’, space, time to develop my faith and time to think. It’s brought a lot of clarity and perspective on life which I’m really grateful for, despite all of the pain and anxieties.

MN: Where do you hope to take your work next?

RC: I haven’t thought about that much, things seem to happen organically with me. I definitely want to develop the ideas that I’ve been working with, but in terms of the form that the work takes, It’s all very fluid – I like the mystery of it all.