Collage Stripped Bare…Even: Exploring The making of Songs of the Siren (No 11) and Collage Practice
Whilst visiting Taya, we both decided to create a collage. I usually work in my studio, surrounded by an array of familiar books, magazines, objects and other source materials and my tools so this would be an interesting challenge! In fact, I embraced the opportunity, finding the unfamiliarity of the circumstances surprisingly freeing and was pleased with the final results.
Prior to embarking on the new piece, I had created several collages in my series ‘Songs of the Siren’. I felt very connected with the siren figure. She is part of me, as well as an emanation of the collective spirit of the group (La Sirena). She is a liminal figure, moving between animal/man, between and beyond gender and species. Her hybridity is not fixed, it is in process, transforming, becoming.
As I began selecting materials for the new collage, I suddenly found myself working quite quickly and even more automatically than usual, choosing fewer collage elements than I normally would, due to there being less source materials to select from and agreeing to not spend more than an hour on the work. In fact, this ‘restriction’ also led me to be more focused.
I found an image of a Victorian woman that had caught my attention and had also cut out some images of flowers and a photograph of geese flying home for the winter. I had an overpowering vision of the woman as a woman/flower hybrid: the ‘woman of flowers’, in my mind (which reminded me of the story of Blodeuwedd – but I did not dwell on this as I prefer to let the materials tell me their story).
It took some experimenting to achieve the effect I had imagined, of representing the marriage of flowers and human form. Only when I had cut the flowers to exactly the right size, so they resembled a ‘true’ flower – head, was I satisfied. The background proved trickier, though. I was not sure how the geese image fitted at first and kept moving it around and almost discarded it as I could not link the two, initially. Then, I placed the woman onto the black card background, instead, but the woman was ‘lost’ in the black depths – too austere – and took away from the beauty and light feeling the image had originally inspired.
Eventually, I saw a connection between the woman and the birds that worked for me. I turned the bird image so that it appeared the geese are flying straight up rather than from left to right, giving the impression that she has an incredible power over them, or affiliation with them, or that the birds are drawn to her. This re-positioning of the geese image added to her magnetising qualities, her power. I also liked the idea she was potentially flying with the birds but also felt she was somehow very attached to this earth and the uncertainty was very convulsive. I retained the black card as a background as it intensified the contrast with the pale blue sky and framed the scene beautifully.
The whole process took about half an hour – which is extremely fast for me. Working with just four elements (black card, geese background, woman and flowers) was very concentrated and quite intoxicating.
The longer I take to make a collage – spending hours looking for more materials or losing the initial connection with the collage world can sometimes take days or even weeks and lead to stagnation or over-determined images due to the constant questioning or doubting of what you have already produced. Too many of my earlier collages fall into this category but for some time now I have begun adopting different ways of working. In fact, Taya had already tried this system of ‘limiting’ herself to fewer sources and imposing a finite amount of time to create the collage in and has produced several very successful collages using this method. Similarly, I had already created seven other collages in the ‘Songs of the Siren’ series in a concentrated spell of a few hours – because I knew Taya was going to feature these in her film La Femme (Re)trouvée and she needed them as soon as possible.
Discussing our experiments further, we noted that this notion of ‘restrictions’ or ‘limits’ is actually completely false. We found the opposite to be true. It encouraged us to be more imaginative and highly focused, intensifying the meanings or narrative or effect we had imagined. It allowed us to work very automatically and not think too deeply about what we were producing until the final stages when the idea or image or whatever the collage is delivering to us becomes more obvious. Then, and only then, do we begin to shape things more consciously, making what we have discovered more concrete, nurturing it until it is ready to take its first steps. It reminded us of what Duchamp said regarding the notion of stripping things down to essentials and keeping only what is needed: ‘Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought.’ (1989: 126).
Duchamp, Marcel (1989), The Writings of Marcel Duchamp  (New York: Da Capo Press)