Joseph Morgan Schofield, performance artist, on a photograph of the sky in the French Pyrenees which they took on a residency in 2019.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
JMS I was thinking about beauty less as an aesthetic value, and more as an experiential thing – and something that I very much experience when I’m encountering various kinds of landscapes. Although it is still a visual medium, it’s a much more sensate or sensory medium or experience. Then thinking about the specific experience in the Pyrenees, where I took the photo, I had been on a residency in a town called Maubourget in the south of France. It was an incredibly hot summer, 40 degrees most of the time – and we went up into the mountains just to escape the heat. The sense of wetness and life was so vibrant and overwhelming it really brought through a sense of something very powerful.
GB You’ve chosen your picture of the sky, but the sky is framed by the mountains, so I suppose the sky wouldn’t have been the same without being in that setting?
JMS Absolutely. I think there’s something about that scale. I think it’s very beautiful, to feel small. There’s something about the sublime nature of this that’s very special.
GB There are so many sensations involved. Is beauty ever just purely visual for you or do all these things have to come into play?
JMS I think they always come into play. I’m sure you know, doing this expanded project, that beauty is one of those words that gets thrown around and overused all the time. But I think if I was trying to be very intentional and precise about what it was that I found beautiful, I think that an added level of sensory experience would always be part of that.
GB And is there a sort of spiritual element to it for you as well? I watched one of your films earlier with your dad talking about seeing a ghost and I wondered whether this relates to sort of a pantheistic view or something eternal a in choosing mountains and sky?
JMS I think there is definitely a dimension of the sacred within that. Not the sacred as something that’s very ordered or precious I suppose, but something that is accessible. The world is just out there. In a similar way to how I’d say that the beauty has many sensory qualities, I think the sacred does too. They probably function in similar ways, but they aren’t necessarily the same thing. But I think on a personal level, encountering something like that, I’m reminded that I’m just one little thing scurrying around for a very brief window of time. You look at the sky, the rocks, you think of the way that the water is recycled for hundreds of thousands of years, and it both anchors and destabilases one’s position in time.
GB And in your work you also seem to have this sense of the minutiae of things at the same time as the sense of vastness.
JMS Again, it relates to scale, because of course, just as much as one is tiny in the face of the universe, one is also vast, in terms of the micro processes that are around us all the time. And I really liked to play with that sense of vastness versus detail, I think you probably see that. When one makes performance work, you’re sort of always the subject, because you’re always present. So, your subjectivity is always the thing that everything’s being filtered through. Yet, at the same time, I guess interested in how one can give way to other sorts of inputs and collaborations It’s definitely a tension, I don’t think it’s something that can be easily resolved, because ultimately, you are watching the film that I created, and it’s funneled through my vision, and there are bits of my limbs in there. My whole body is very infrequently present, and my face is never fully present in it. That was less of a decision about trying to universalise the film in some way but more about trying to de-centre the immediacy of my body or the immediacy of my subjectivity and to give equal if not more space to the other elements that are shimmering at the edge of one’s vision.
GB Is beauty something you’re aiming for in your work?
JMS I think the traditional notion of making a beautiful image is something that I’ve actually become increasingly frustrated with, so I might create an image that’s quite brutal in lots of ways, but still very beautiful in terms of the composition and the nature of what’s going on.
This image, for example, has a statuesque quality, it’s kind of erotic, it has this violent grace to it. And I became quite frustrated with making those sorts of images because I felt as a relatively young person, as a relatively thin person, as a white person, as a non-disabled person, that with all of these things, I was finding it quite easy to slip into this mode of performance or image making, turning on easy ideas of beauty and not necessarily intervening that critically in image-based politics. I think I am interested in beauty in my work, but I’m also striving for something more complicated or murky or sensory.
GB You’re too classically beautiful for your own work.
JMS In the process of maturation as an artist, I think I had to reflect on what I was putting out there and why and why it felt good to put it out there, and what was at stake in that moment. I sort of went the other way into obscuring quite a lot and I’m trying to trying to walk the line between those two things now as I’m gearing up to make some new work.
GB Yeah. Do you believe in universal beauty Do you think everybody would find your sky beautiful?
JMS I don’t believe in an aesthetic that is universally beautiful. But I do believe that the experience of beauty that I that I am trying to articulate, I think that is something that almost everyone can recognise. It is a facet of the human condition that we that we seek out. We seek out that sense of connection.
GB Do you think nature is more beautiful than things that a man made?
JMS I was wondering about sculptures from the from the history of Western art, Michelangelo’s David or one of the really amazing pietas and I wondered if that was more beautiful than the quarry that it was cut from? I think we create what is beautiful to ourselves based on our worldview, our education, our class, our experiences, these sorts of things. I know that some people can have an entirely rapturous experience looking at a Michelangelo, for example, in the same way that one could have a rapturous experience staring at the sky in the mountains. I don’t know that one is better than the other. It’s a very individual and personal thing.
GB Was part of the experience of actually climbing to the top of the mountain Did that achievement make it more beautiful?
JMS Perhaps I’m thinking less of the walk and more of the immediate experience of difficulty in the days preceding it, then the sense of relief or release that was presented by the overwhelming wetness, the smell of the moss, that enormous sky that the mist was rolling through.
GB And does the enormity of it release you from the normal trains of human thought?
JMS I think it does make one’s subjectivity slippy, in that my experience of it is that I’m still me, but I’m also slipping out of this skinsuit. into something more vast.
GB I felt a sense of longing in your work. Is that intentional?
JMS One never knows how it transmits. And of course, the response that people have is the response that people have. I’m doing a performance at the ICA and the work is called ‘with bare feet touching the sky I yearn.’
It’s about that sense of the connection between the flesh and the abyss. I think when I think of longing, I also think of the word belonging. There is probably a sense of yearning that I’m putting into the work and you’re maybe feeling a sense of belonging too – within the vastness of the world and not just within the constructs of society or civilization.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
JMS I think it presents itself as an experience, which pushes one out of oneself in a way that stops you in your tracks, that completely holds the processes that you’re in the day-to-day processes that have led up to that moment. And that transforms you.