Interview with Giulia Ricci about Borderlines for Lines of Empathy publication



Giulia Ricci Can you please summarise your practice in a few lines for readers who might not be familiar with it?

Lucinda Burgess My work is minimal, non-objective, often linear, and places great emphasis on the natural character of the materials used. These include steel, glass, wood, aluminium, graphite and paper. My varied background in painting, landscape design and oriental philosophy has significantly contributed to my practice. One important consequence of this combination of experiences is my play with the borderline between categories such as sculpture, architecture, drawing and painting; it isn’t obvious which category a particular work falls into.

GR Imagine that you were asked to describe your work Borderlines, in words, to someone who was unable to view the work itself.

LB Borderlines has been made by applying pencil to paper. However, the definition of drawing is being stretched as it has many sculptural elements. The paper is on a large roll supported against the wall with steel brackets and a pole. The paper rolls down the wall and enters the field of the viewer on the floor. All the most visible surface areas are covered in pencil.

GR Can you explain your choice of paper for this work?

LB The paper is 200 gsm, white, by Fabriano. It’s a fairly thick paper and therefore tough enough to withstand handling during installation. The thickness also enabled me to create creases which, after being pressed down, are rumpled enough to be easily seen. Creases in the paper produce borderlines at the end of the roll. The choice of paper and the fat creases it creates are thus directly linked to the subject of the work: how do you define a drawing, where is the edge, the border? At what point does a drawing become a sculpture – when it touches the floor, or when it curves into the room along the floor? How far into the room does it have to go?

As well as good, visible, border-like creases, I wanted a tooth or grain that was smooth. This allowed me to achieve a silky reflective surface when I added the graphite with plenty of pressure. The greater the reflectivity, the more the visual field of the viewer keeps changing, further demonstrating the difficulty of pinning anything down with exact precision.

GR Why is Borderlines the size it is?

LB Drawing has traditionally been seen as a precursor to serious work: ‘just preparatory’. It’s been regarded as a lesser art-form both in terms of its status and quite literally, physically. Like many other artists of today, I wanted to challenge these ideas and expand the definition, to show that drawing is not necessarily small or inferior. It can occupy real space in the same way that sculpture does.

Traditionally drawing is a means for representing something that is not here – an artist’s model no longer present, or a building not yet built. For these purposes, the drawing can be tiny: some of Rembrandt’s stunning portraits are the size of a postage stamp. In Borderlines the material of the drawing is the subject; there is nothing being imagined or represented. The material itself is taking centre stage and the bigger scale brings home its natural, changeable character.

The roll I used is 170cm high, 175cm wide, and comes across the floor for a further 32cm. It’s large enough for the viewer to walk around it, as you would with a sculpture, and thus to offer different viewpoints that emphasise the mutability of the materials.

I have deliberately made a work that is part drawing, part sculpture. I’ve done this because I’m interested in the limitations of words and categories like ‘drawing’ and ‘sculpture’. Words and categories cannot capture the ever changing and variable nature of life – they are just symbols or signposts. Here we have something that doesn’t fit into the category of drawing, nor of sculpture: it sits on the borderline. Words can be particularly clumsy when trying to capture the richness of first-hand experience. As is sometimes said, language makes the uncommon common.

GR Please could you provide as estimate of how long it took to make this piece and could you detail the role of time in relation to this work?

LB It took a while! Possibly three or four weeks. I had already made similar smaller pieces, so it was part of a long line of evolving work. It didn’t have a beginning or an end in that sense.

Time-consuming labour is something I seem to be drawn to. A friend watched me, horrified, as I slowly covered the surface – horizontal lines back and forth, and then vertical ones on top, to build up the graphite in a thick layer. I kept standing to one side to see how well it was reflecting.

‘Why not strap four pencils together,’ he said, ‘so that you cover the surface more quickly?’ To humour him I did try this, but as I’d anticipated, the lines were more faint and less even; I wasn’t able to control a clump of pencils so well.

The time it took is, I think, an essential ingredient in the work. The pencil travelling over the surface of paper could be compared to a journey a person makes when walking over the ground; travelling from A to B takes time. Pencils create lines rather than daubs or blotches. And lines, because they travel from one place to another, have time built into them. Time is intrinsic to line. Many lines going back and forth, represent a lot of time.

I intended to separate the paper from the roll at first, but keeping the roll helped to add to this time dimension, (as well as making the paper more of an object). A roll of paper shows that the work could extend; it hints at the possibility that this could go on and on, intimating a sense of endless time.

GR Which tools and materials, paper excluded, were used to create Borderlines? Did you ever consider them to be an extension of your body while making this work? Could you provide information about where the piece was created? For instance, the surface on which the paper rested, or its positioning during execution?

LB Apart from paper, my main material is graphite from a 6b pencil, chosen for its blackness. A higher number, like a 9b, is very black too, but too soft and breakable. Applying the graphite in such a dense, uniform way has brought out it’s natural metallic character –  where the graphite curves around the roll it shines and glints; where it lies on the flatter plane, it reveals the slightest undulations in the paper’s surface. The graphite’s reflective nature picks up the colours in the room, and as the viewer moves, dramatic changes of tone from bright white to deepest black ripple and undulate in their visual field. Is the graphite black or pale grey or bright white? It all depends on where you’re standing in relation to it; on the light in the room, the colour of the walls, the shade of your glasses, and so on. Things are interdependent and changeable, and the graphite dramatises this fact.

Despite being a large plane of graphite, it is still possible to see the individual lines of pencil that have been made back and forth, and this makes it evident that a great deal of activity has taken place. The sheer effort and the endlessness of all that physical movement also makes me think of human life.

Another element of the work that feeds into this idea of the drawing as a record of physical activity, is the fact that I have not covered the paper that is inside the roll in graphite. This part remains white; the contrast accentuates the difference.

To answer the second part of the question, I worked at a table and placed another piece of paper underneath, which gave a softer surface, making the lines wider. I regularly sharpened my 6b pencil and, needless to say, got through a good number of them!

GR Does your use of paper in this artwork (and any medium and process employed in it) relate to other materials and processes that you use elsewhere in your practice? And if yes, in what way?

LB It does. I like to take a single material and treat parts of it differently, to show how the same material can look very different from different angles. So from the front, Borderlines looks a little like a solid sheet of metal, tough and strong. But when you move to the side, you see that this is just paper, a material that is easily damaged. Your perception of the work keeps changing as you move around it – tough one minute, fragile the next.

In a work called Same, I have done something similar, using mild steel angles. One side of each strip of steel angle is polished, the other side is rusted. Step to the right and it looks velvety-orange. Step to the left and it looks like a mirror. It’s all the same material, mild steel, but the perceptions keep changing depending on your position in relationship to it.

I enhanced this variability of perception by placing the same configuration of steel angles on the floor as I had on the wall, so that there are two sets, wall and floor. The ones on the wall look like post-minimal art. The ones on the floor (placed in a door threshold) look like a foot grille or a cattle grid even though they are the same as the ones on the wall.  Things are always what they are only in relationship to other things. In other words, the context changes the thing itself.

GR What is your physical experience of working on paper? Are there any particular experiences related to this drawing that you’d like to mention? For example, something that motivated the artwork initially, or something that happened during the making of it (or afterwards).

LB I think the germ of the idea was born on holiday and in a relaxed frame of mind. I only had a sketchbook and pencil to hand. As I rubbed graphite over the paper and started folding it, I could see a very satisfying, highly reflective shine appearing, (sitting, as I was, under the hot Italian sun).

If I go back much further, there’s no doubt that the decade I spent in a Buddhist monastery in my twenties and thirties has critically affected the way I see things. Part of the training was learning how to repeatedly notice what was happening in terms of first-hand experience. So instead of getting constantly caught up in our thoughts, we would notice that ‘thinking’ was happening. Once we notice that, our attention is back and we are aware of what is actually happening in the here and now. It wasn’t about crushing thinking, but simply noticing what was actually happening: a moment of hearing, a moment of seeing, a moment of perception, a moment of thinking, more hearing etc. After a while, the apparent solidity of a ‘me’ in here and a world out there was being dissolved into moments of fleeting experience. As the training was so much about seeing what is actually there, as opposed to our ideas about what is there, it seems inevitable that I would want to look at the very matter of drawing – the paper, the graphite – instead of using those materials to depict imaginary subjects like a tree or a figure. Examining the matter, I could then use it to bring out its own nature – changeable, interdependent, unpindownable, just as all experience is.  So it’s very reminiscent of my training in the monastery.

On a less metaphysical and more practical note, I started with a sheet of paper that I had cut from the roll. Midway through I glued the roll back on. I hadn’t anticipated the fact that the glue would cause the paper to ruckle slightly. With the application of graphite, it’s easy to see that this causes slight undulations in the plane of paper. Although I hadn’t seen it coming, I was happy with this display of paper’s natural character, its tendency to bend, which adds to the changing patterns of light and dark as you move around it.

GR I would like you to reflect on Borderlines and its relationship with the different senses. Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch are the five basic ones. However, there are several additional senses, such as the vestibular sense (which relates to movement and to our sense of balance) and the proprioceptive sense (which relates to the awareness of our own body in relation to itself). Which ones are more relevant to Borderlines and how?

LB I am drawn to very labour-intensive, repetitive work that takes a great deal of time. Or doing anything repetitive for that matter: walking, running – or meditating, where, as you breathe, you pay repeated attention to the rise and fall of the abdomen.

The primary sense for me is, as you’d expect, sight. While working, I watch the material slowly transform and I’m absorbed in the present. I usually stand, to get a better view and move easily above and around the piece. My back might suffer, but I’m so absorbed by the visual field that I barely notice the ache. Until later!

My hope is that the viewer can become just as engaged with the sense of sight – the way lines expand and contract according to the laws of perspective as they move around it, and the way the tones keep changing. Of course bodily movement is also critical: it’s vital that the viewer moves around the work. It is about the first-hand experience of seeing while moving.

There’s another important ingredient I want to mention, which is an attitude. The lines I’ve drawn, going back and forth on the paper, are very alike; they are made with close attention, not scribbled or rushed. This attitude translates into the surface: it’s smooth and calm. By placing the delicate paper partly on the floor, where the viewer could easily accidentally stand on it, I try to alert them to the same need for attentiveness as I had when I drew it. The work is vulnerable, so the viewer needs to take extra care and stay alert.

GR Looking back at my second question about describing the work, could you do this by using an analogy?

LB I often think that Heraclitus’s analogy is appropriate to Borderlines. He was talking about the universal truth that nothing can ever repeat. He said ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’. There is just flow, there are ultimately no separate entities. Things are interconnected and constantly changing, to the point where they cannot be isolated and grasped, just like running water. This is the subject of Borderlines. In a more literal way, the work itself looks a little river-like as the paper flows off the roll, down the wall, spilling onto the floor.

To expand on this, the water in the river has no borderlines – there are no separate entities here. Similarly, the borderline between drawing and sculpture is ambiguous, like all dividing lines: while they may be spoken about theoretically, they are actually an impossibility, because everything in life is interlinked. Borderlines was created in 2017, at a time when, with Trump trying to build his wall and a few other governments trying to reduce immigration, borders were in the news every day. Whether borders demarcate a sculpture or a drawing or a country, it’s apparent that lines and boundaries can be crossed, and that nothing exists independently. So this work could be said to be primarily about interdependence.

GR The pandemic has accelerated the rethinking of our physicality in relation to so many aspects of our daily lives, from the way we interact with other people to our ability to experience places, prompting urgent questions about equality, health, environment, to name but a few. Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share in relations to this, which are relevant to your practice?

LB The pandemic has changed our habits. We have become so much more reliant on digital media and are more inclined to view art online.

As has hopefully become apparent, I put a high value on direct, unmediated experience. Most art, and certainly my own, has to be seen at first hand. Photography and film can be  hopeless at communicating scale, for example, which is a vital factor in any work. My art is all about moving around a piece and taking in the subtle changes of light, colour, texture and reflection. It is like a meditation on the first-hand experience of seeing.

My thoughts on this change in our habits? We should be building galleries that have much more daylight and much more ventilation. Let the natural world in! People need air, and light, and art.




September 2021
Interview with Giulia Ricci about Borderlines.