Performing Gestures: An Interview with Leyla Stevens

Leyla Stevens, Take Care Dear (2013), found photographs, cardan grille.
Leyla Stevens, Take Care Dear (2013), found photographs, cardan grille.

Leyla Stevens is a Sydney-based visual artists who works predominantly with photography, video and text-based media. Often draws upon her Indonesian-Australian heritage, Leyla’s practice explores the relationships between ritual, gestures and belonging. Her work focuses on the codified communication of gestures and their translations through different cultural subjects.

In 2011 she received a Master of Fine Art at Sydney College of the Arts and has been exhibiting in Australia and internationally since 2008. In 2014 she was selected to exhibit in SafARI, the unofficial fringe event for Sydney Biennale. In 2013, she undertook an artist residency at Cemeti Art House in Jogjakarta, Indonesia as part of the gallery’s Hotwave program. Leyla has been accepted into the 2015 PhD program at UTS and is planning to base her research between Bali and Java, Indonesia.

Can you please describe your practice? 

Much of my practice is informed by my Australian-Balinese background. My work examines cross-cultural modes of belonging, where identity is considered in terms of multiple cultural expressions and genealogies. My own experience of balancing these two cultural frameworks has initiated my interest into how the body negotiates cultural differences, and what shifts of signification occur when gestures migrate through different subjects.

I am interested in the iterative processes that produce body language: how we inherit gestures and how we imitate and mimic others somatically. At the moment I work primarily with video, but the way I approach the medium is very much related to my background in photography. I like to play with the possibility of video acting as a photograph  – so I often use fixed frames, endless loops or stretch a single moment out.

I would like to start with your two-channel video installation ‘Ngendag/Rise Up’ (2010-2014). Can you please describe the project, and describe how your practice has evolved since then?

Ngendag was part of a significant ceremony for my family in Bali and marked the passing of the older generation — where my grandparents, two great-uncles and a great-aunt were all cremated together. The Ngendag ceremony, which means “to rise up”, involves the night before the final cremation (Ngaben), when the bones of my relatives had to be exhumed from temporary burial graves and then prepared for ceremonial burning. All Hindu-Balinese funeral rites involve burning the body and then throwing the ashes out to sea. However for many families, the cremation is often delayed for economic reasons and the deceased is temporarily buried until other relatives can join them or an auspicious date is agreed upon. 

Leyla Stevens, Ngendag/Rise Up' (2010-2014), Video Installation
Leyla Stevens, Ngendag/Rise Up’ (2010-2014), Video Installation
Leyla Stevens, Ngendag/Rise Up' (2010-2014), Video Installation
Leyla Stevens, Ngendag/Rise Up’ (2010-2014), Video Installation

For viewers who are unfamiliar with such traditions they may be confronted by the work. Balinese death rites are not quiet or personal acts of mourning – they are loud and industrious events of collective activity. Respect for those who have passed is not marked by a safe distance but encountered up close. The body is physically touched, washed and prepared for their final cremation. I am really interested in this intersection between highly symbolic gestures and unscripted moments of everyday practicality, humour and even boredom that are present within this sacred rite. 

Ngendag as an artwork came from an investigation of the performativity of ritual – how in ceremonial rites there is this kind of performative score or script that everyone follows which both forms and enacts the meaning and purpose of the ritual. I’m interested in what happens when the body enacts this score and how, by physically citing these specific order of symbolic gestures, you allow yourself to embody a ritual that has been performed countless times before. So the idea with presenting this ceremony as a two-channel video was to have certain moments being repeated between the two channels side by side and to somehow represent this gestural score being played out.

I would say my practice has evolved since making this work in that it initiated for me a method of research where I can draw on family histories and place that within a larger context. But with that I had to really think about the question of readership and what it would mean to show this work to an Australian audience. Working with documentary styles has offered me a space to subtly subvert that genre (documentary) and hopefully steer any readership away from the ‘exotic spectacle’ to a more engaged mode of reception.

Leyla Stevens, Calling Nyi Roro Kidul (2013), Video Still
Leyla Stevens, Calling Nyi Roro Kidul (2013), Video Still

In a catalogue essay titled ‘WTF: WHISKEY – TANGO – FOXTROT’ for your previous exhibition in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Agung Nugroho Widhi wrote ‘Language, I understand as an eternal distance.
How do you interpret this comment in relation to the use of Cardan Grille in your work?

Yes, Agung offered this poetic image of language’s eternal distance being a vast ocean to cross, which I quite like. This image serves as a thematic thread through a lot of my recent work where I look at different types of communication methods, be it through gesture, codes or signals. I think about communication as an effort in crossing a distance, whether that distance is a geographical separation or describing a cultural difference. 

My use of the cardan grille came about when I was looking at different historical types of cryptography. Cardan grilles fall into this category of encoding called steganography, which is the art of concealing a secret message within piece of writing, such a letter or a list. I feel that this type of encryption is describing a basic experience of language, where there are always messages within messages to decipher and decode.

Leyla Stevens, Take Care Dear (2013), found photographs, cardan grille.
Leyla Stevens, Take Care Dear (2013), found photographs, cardan grille.

At the time I was based in Jogjakarta, I found myself in flea markets where you could buy stacks of these old family photographs. Some of them were still quite good quality silver-gelatin prints and offered this fascinating glimpse into how domestic photography was tied up with the history of Indonesia’s early modernism. I started to think of the ways in which historical archive was encoded with its own secret messages. So I created a cardan grille in relation to a series of photographs that I found, that appeared to be from one family’s personal album.

Looking through the archives of a stranger’s life you start to understand photography as evidence of history but that history itself remains so inaccessible, evoking again that vast oceanic distance that needs a tool to navigate and decode.

Your work reveals the often hidden, but intrinsic complexity in the use of language(s). Such use is contextual, whether that be time, place or culture. How do you see the complex relations between gestures, language and history? 

Like I touched upon in the last question, this idea of history and language needing to be decoded is present in much of my work – and looking at how translation or interpretation can result in multiple and conflicting meanings. The concept of gesture for me, sits on an interesting point between a culturally scripted sign and individual expression.

Gesture is a language, but unlike a spoken one, I think it offers a greater possibility of subjectivity. To go back to this notion of ritual, by performing these symbolic actions you are both reciting a cultural framework and then also creating your own meanings and signification through the physical experience of undertaking the ritual.

Leyla Stevens, Calling Nyi Roro Kidul (2013), Video installation with bamboo, light, sound.
Nikki Lam

Author: Nikki Lam

Nikki Lam is a visual artist, curator and producer based in Narrm/Birraranga (Melbourne, Australia). Working primarily with moving images, performance and installation, her work explores hybrid identities often through studies of rituals, language and representations, as well as the ephemeral medium of video. Born in Hong Kong, Nikki’s work has been shown across Australia and internationally. She is currently Co-Director of Hyphenated Projects and associate producer at Next Wave. She has been the Artistic Director of Channels Festival (2014-2017) and visual arts editor for Peril Magazine (2014-2016), as well as programming and production roles at Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI), Footscray Community Arts Centre and Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (UK). She has a Bachelor of Visual Arts in Photomedia (2009, Monash University) and Executive Master of Arts (2014, University of Melbourne). / @curiousother — Tweeting at @curiousother