February 27 – April 10, 2021
SaraNoa Mark named a 2021 “Breakout Artist” by New City (click to read)
About the Exhibition
Goldfinch is proud to present “36° 15’ 43” N 29° 59’ 14” E,” a solo exhibition of new sculptures by SaraNoa Mark.
SaraNoa Mark’s practice investigates traces left by time, as they exist in landscapes and in collective memory. Using lasting materials like carved clay and discarded stones, the artist explores notions of permanence and erasure, questioning why certain pieces of history remain visible, while others fall away and are lost. Through intricate sculptural work that “rhymes” with, rather than replicates, ancient artifacts and sites of antiquity, Mark considers how we task certain objects with surviving time and how, in turn, these objects shape our perceptions of history. In other words, when we only see what we’re reminded of, what do we neglect in the process? What remains hidden, but still present?
Mark’s new body of work stems from a recent Fulbright research fellowship in Turkey, during which the artist visited living rock monuments throughout the country. Among these sites was Myra, an ancient Lycian metropolis, in the present-day Antalya Province. Now a Turkish national park and international tourist destination, the site is known for its rock-cut tombs, carved into the vertical cliff faces of a mountain. With further exploration of the area, Mark visited the mountain’s other side, quietly tucked behind orange groves, away from the crowds. The mountain’s “backside” revealed rock cut staircases and tombs, equally as complex and mysterious as the carved ruins of the front. For Mark, this “secret” or neglected part of an ancient site threw into very literal relief questions about pilgrimage and abandonment, value and neglect. “36° 15’ 43” N 29° 59’ 14” E,” the coordinates of Myra’s reverse mountainside, invites us into a new landscape, where what is discarded, buried, and remembered is exposed all at once—a historical record remade, and then remade again.
“This project is partially supported by an Individual Artist Program Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, as well as a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, a state agency through federal funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.”
*Additional Programs To Be Announced
Communal Beach Clean at the 57th Street Beach
Sunday, March 21, 2021, 1 pm – 3:30 pm
This event is hosted in partnership with the Alliance for Great Lakes ADOPT-A-BEACH
SaraNoa Mark (b. 1991, New York, NY) pursues a drawing practice that reflects a desire to evidence the constant and invisible activity of time. Mark’s work has been supported by a Fulbright art research award in Turkey. SaraNoa was named a Visual Arts Fellow by the Luminarts Cultural Foundation. They have received grants from The John Anson Kittredge Fund, Illinois Arts Council, and a SPARK grant. Mark’s work was acquired by the West collection through a LIFTS grant. Upon graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts SaraNoa was awarded a European travel scholarship. SaraNoa was a BOLT resident at the Chicago Artists Coalition, and has held residencies at the Montello Foundation, Jackman Goldwasser Residency at the Hyde Park Art Center, The Lois and Charles X. Carlson Painting Residency, Sedona Summer Colony, and Art Kibbutz. Recent exhibitions of her work have taken place at Davis & Langdale Company, New York, NY; Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, Chicago, IL ; Tiger Strikes Astroid, Philadelphia, PA; Monaco, St. Louis, MO; Chicago Artists Coalition, Chicago, IL; Smithsonian Institution’s S. Dillon Ripley Center, Washington, DC among others. SaraNoa is a co-director at the 4th Ward Project Space in Chicago where she lives and works.
Click image for larger views. Photos by Ryan Edmund
Photos by Ryan Edmund
It is hard to confront time, though our temporality is “non-negotiable,” as SaraNoa Mark has noted before. We are unable to escape time’s continual reminders, and they are forever greeting us in the largest and smallest of ways: through the body’s aches and pains; through an old song that thrusts us back into a memory of heartbreak; in those moments when we run late or forget an obligation entirely. Through words like “throwback” and “birthday” and “extinction” and “anniversary.” And then, of course, there’s always death.
It’s also hard to write about time—maybe because it’s always moving, and maybe because it’s experienced immeasurably. Mark has said that she feels “inside of time” when she makes work. When I first read those words, I was struck by a feeling of vertigo. Aren’t we always “inside” of time? Isn’t it entirely inescapable? While it’s true that we’re never really apart from it, the more I attempted to imagine myself on the “inside,” the more I recognized something discordant, something that pointed to the way “time” has become something strangely outside of us, falsely bent to fit the structures of our modern lives. It can become menacing in this way, like something pressing on us, always antagonizing, always an impossible race.
So much is assumed when time is discussed in contemporary life, and these assumptions often favor the human-centered, the able-bodied, the standardized, and the productive. This is time under capitalism—time that has altered and degraded natural processes. It’s accelerated time, and it can be exhausting, and worse. Time is personal, certainly. But it is extraordinarily impersonal, too. Insects experience time differently than we do. So do trees, and rocks. If we spend too much time thinking about time, it’s possible to lose our grip on things, and time doesn’t care. Maybe that’s why we always move so quickly to Apocalyptic scenarios: it’s a way out of time, for everybody.
For Mark, things take time and work develops slowly. She observes places at length, paying attention to the changing light, to the ways a single material like rock or water can reveal itself differently over periods of time. Translated back into their practice, the result of these observations is the gradual transformation of materials through touch and time alone. She draws as a way of seeing. Using lasting materials like stone and clay, Mark lets materials stay what they are, accumulating mark after mark after mark. Between each mark, she cleans her carving tools, ensuring that clay is cleanly removed and no residue is left. No color is added, nothing is applied. In this way, Mark’s drawing practice mimics the elements: it wears down a surface, in slow and patterned strokes, like wind whipping across a landscape over time, evincing that time touches everything, always.
In Mark’s mind, landscapes are drawings, marked not just by wind and water, but by the gestures of people and the movements of communities over time. It makes sense to me that Mark uses the word “place” more often than “landscape;” “place” is something known from the inside. To know a place is to spend a long time paying attention, not only to the appearance of things, but to the smells, the sounds, the humidity. During a Fulbright research trip in Turkey, Mark explored living rock monuments, existing for millennia in the region’s cliffs and jagged outcroppings. There, Mark’s methods of research and observation involved ways of sensing that many of us experienced more as children than we do now: crouching, peering closely at the surfaces of things, climbing over rocks, sprawling on ground with the sun on our faces. In the afternoons, Mark rested their body on ancient carvings, created centuries ago. Through these movements, which inevitably find their way into her sculptures, Mark engaged in an intimate exchange with an ancient place; the past was immediate, visceral, and understood as something interwoven with us in the present moment.
We often explore questions of time through stories or poems—epics, ballads, elegies to things lost. Mark’s carved clay tablets can appear both as intricate aerial landscapes and as echoes of the cuneiform tablets, hieroglyphics, or ancient scrolls that hold much of the artist’s attention. Often referring to her practice in terms of language and her marks as an alphabet, Mark is deliberate in using the word “rhyme” to describe the way they respond to ancient objects and places. Instead of replicating or reproducing an artifact in order for it to exist anew in the world, Mark makes work that speaks with historical artifacts as if they’re old friends, conversing across time and space. In this way, the past is not simply something that was; it is always accumulating as the present. As an artist, who so intimately engages with the past, Mark seems, to me—a viewer—somehow unafraid of time. Or, at least, unafraid of facing it, both in the present moment and in the deep gulf that comprises the past. Her works emulate antiquities, but when the virtue of simply being “old” is removed, they remind us of the immediacy of objects, the mysterious ways they’ve always moved us.
After a period spent with Mark’s work, I was unexpectedly reminded of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a piece of writing I hadn’t thought about in a long time. In the poem, Whitman—the Transcendentalist who wrote about the Manhattan streets with as much fondness as he did rocks and trees—stands on a riverbank, watching a ferry move across the water. Taking in the surrounding sights and sounds, he addresses everyone who has ridden the ferry before and those who will in future times: “the others that are to follow me, / the ties between them and me.” With the poem as an enduring object, always existing in a reader’s present, Whitman writes of connective threads of experience, shared by strangers across time. These threads are subtle but enduring, dissolving boundaries between “I” and “you” and “we.”
Like Whitman’s epic, Mark’s work may engage the deep past, but through it, I find myself thinking about the expanse of time always unfolding ahead. This unknowable expanse, inhabited by our children and grandchildren and on and on, can feel entirely abstracted, impersonal, and having little to do with us. We may be specific in our individual bodies, but we are not unique in our embodiment. Here now and later, gone; others will arrive, or as Whitman says to a future reader: “Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a / crowd.” All of this matters, art seems to say. By compressing time and bringing the past to us so closely, Mark’s work asks us to recognize time as something that moves through and within us, to see it as something we intimately inhabit. Perhaps, when we look back or gaze ahead into gulfs of time, the distances we expect to find there are not so wide.
SaraNoa Mark’s exhibition “36° 15’ 43” N 29° 59’ 14” E” is bounded on both sides by colored clay-cone mosaics. Similar cone mosaics were some of the first objects ever made with express purpose of transforming a building from a container for activities to a place whose spiritual force becomes the focus of those activities. When these cones were first made in the fourth millennium BCE, some temples had existed in Mesopotamia for as many as two thousand years. It was the marvelous communal feasts that had taken place in these buildings that fixed them in the experience and memory of the participants, causing them to be rebuilt again and again, ever larger each time, at the same location. They eventually became the homes of the gods that guided the Mesopotamian cosmos in the earliest written accounts of the lives of these gods. The clay cones added to this tradition, but they transformed it. They made a place sacralized by stories and experiences into a place whose visual power was unavoidably experienced, even by a stranger.
The clay cone tradition lasted only for a few centuries. By the third millennium, however, very similarly shaped “pegs” were being used to attach the growing power of these temples, by this point stretching back to time immemorial, to the identities of particular kings who sponsored their various episodes of rebuilding. Each time a temple was rebuilt, the construction team looked for the original foundations of the temple and unearthed a deposit that contained a collection pegs inscribed by every king whose labor teams had engaged in the same activity of renovation since the practice began. A new peg naming the current king was added, and the collection of objects was reburied. It was based on these deposits that the king Nabonidus (r. 559-539 BCE) wrote some of the earliest known histories based on archaeological data, and assembled his archaeological museum, the earliest known building for this purpose. These histories were histories of those temples, those places, that had, through millennia of experience, oral and written history, and objects of beautification, become the cornerstone of the “cuneiform culture” that reach its greatest geographical extent under Nabonidus.
But Nabonidus was also the final king who lived completely within this cultural world. Following his reign, these temples, some of which had been continuously rebuilt for five thousand years, began to fall into disrepair and sink beneath the silt dunes. The baked bricks that had once formed some of the most spiritually powerful places on earth, were treated as scrap, mined to build newer buildings.
When Percy Shelley wrote the famous poem “Ozymandius” about a sculpture of Ramses II in 1818, he observed that “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/of that colossal/wreck, boundless and bare/the lone and level sands stretch far away.” This observation was certainly not true in his own time, as Egypt was at that time an urbanized and agriculturally productive place with numerous greatly respected historical monuments. However, it is true that the monumental works of Ramses II were little known in 1818, and even less of his life and reign. This is quite the opposite of the case today, only two centuries later, when innumerable sculptures of the king are visited every year, not only within the monuments he created them to populate, but also in museums across the globe, and his reign, the second longest among Egyptian kings, is known in more detail than almost any other king who ruled anywhere before the Roman Empire.
The passage of time and the events of history have a way of transforming places and buildings from monuments with unavoidable power to refuse or raw material and back. Last year, SaraNoa traveled through Turkey as a part of a Fulbright- sponsored project to physically interact with ancient and medieval rock monuments in the country. During these travels, they were touched by the mysterious ways the rock monuments were transformed through this never-ending process. How is it that one cliff face, carved into elaborate tombs by the ancient inhabitants of the city of Myra, has become a Turkish national park and an internationally recognized tourist destination, while the opposite face, carved into similarly stunning tombs, remains the backdrop of privately-owned orange groves? How is it that an equally elaborately carved Phrygian tomb near the village of Ayazini has become a stone quarry? And how did it happen that a stone quarry outside the ancient city of Ephesus made the opposite journey, first as a Roman burial site and then as a Byzantine site of pilgrimage? And finally, as they watched the waters of the newly created Ilisu Dam reservoir rise, how was it that a collection of medieval religious buildings was removed from the ancient town of Hasankeyf, and reconstructed on the cliffs above, while the similarly aged houses and market were left to be submerged?
In this exhibition SaraNoa ties together all of these processes and attitudes with a collection of work formed from materials that take millions of years to decompose. Here, replicas of the clay cones that once marked buildings as having an eternal meaning beyond their material existence mingle with work made from industrial stone scraps that were discarded as worthless as soon as they were created. Here, monuments that were forgotten, discarded, buried, and submerged gain new life in the human consciousness. — Akiva Sanders, February 2020
EL: Regarding your practice, you’ve spoken before about being in conversation with the deep past and with ancient objects that have survived time. I’m wondering where this connection to ancient history—to cuneiform tablets and archaeological ruins, for instance—began for you. In your work, it seems like you feel an intimate relationship with time, as though the distance between you and the past has been compressed. Can you speak more about that?
SM: Activating memory is a daily ritual of Jewish practice. On Passover, the act of remembering is taken a step further. We read a text that instructs individuals in each generation to see themselves as if they left Egypt. To experience ourselves as having left a biblical Egypt – whether you conceive of Egypt as a physical or psychological location- means that the foundation of my imagination is shaped by a tradition in which deep time and the present moment coexist simultaneously. Conceptually inhabiting such a consciousness invites a creative closeness with the ancient past.
Visually, once I began working primarily with carving tools to draw into paper, clay, and stone I found myself looking to other carved works, to Assyrian reliefs, cuneiform tablets, foundation deposits: fragments carved by time. I fell in love with these works admiring their sensitivity to material, attention to intricate detail, and their physical presence. Wishing to spend extended time looking at relief carvings led me to take a job as a museum guard at the Oriental Institute in Chicago. When I worked the overnight shift I was the only one in the museum. This experience created an incredibly intimate relationship with objects made in a context far separated by time from our own.
EL: This might be a very basic question in some sense, but I’m curious: when you’re looking at ancient objects, what kinds of things are you thinking about? What do the objects seem to “tell” you?
SM: I look at ancient objects that grip my attention; I try to decipher from a formal perspective what about the object is visually entrancing. I wonder how, through my own artistic production, can I enter a dialogue with the object? I think about how the most beautiful objects were created to perform rituals, as living objects!
I think about the ways objects are shaped by time. The ways we task objects with surviving time, with recording what memory cannot retain. Objects outlive their makers. What are the elements of style, monumentality, time period, and geography of the object that it is able to avoid destruction and is deemed worthy of “preservation”? What propels people to dig deep into the earth? What are we trying to discover? When, how, and by whom was the object excavated?
I think about the object being the color of the earth from the place where it was produced and if I am encountering the object in a museum I think about the distance the item traveled, and how it was transported, and if the object exerted resistance. How does the experience of the object change when it is taken from its original context and put into a museum? What are the kinds of architecture built for the purposes of display? What narrative is being propelled through the display of the object? Alternatively, if I am viewing a carving in situ I ask why and how it continues to exist in collective memory? What about it attracts pilgrimage? How do we interact with it today? Is there water or other notable geographical features nearby? Or if I am visiting an abandoned or forgotten carving I wonder why it has been forgotten? Is it too far inland?
I listen to the sounds. I trace its shape with my fingers. I rest against its surface.
I think about how this stone has been sitting under the sky absorbing wind, rain, and touch.
EL: Your practice of carving clay is rooted in an “alphabet” of shapes that you’ve developed, with the tools you’re using. The carved works feel like they’re communicating with us in a language we have to decipher for ourselves, and I’m always struck by the way these pieces remind me of communication beyond speech—through sight, bodily sensations, patience, stillness, etc. How do you think about language and communication, written and otherwise?
SM: I really appreciate hearing these reflections. I view the world as a drawing continuously being carved by environmental and human gestures. I think about drawing as a language that documents moments in time. Every gesture has its own language. There is the continuous drip of the stalactite building one line over 8,000 years; the spiraling shape of the way an ant draws through wood; a drawn curved line where water meets the shore; patterns seen in aerial images of farm lands; geometric hollowed spaces that are the subways underground. Existence itself is a drawn language.
These drawings communicate evidence of geological events. I am interested in the inadvertent traces left behind, and the highly conscious effort to write and archive presence. Yet we are gifted permission to forget once we have recorded memory. Observing a drawing practice renders thoughts visible that would otherwise disappear. I am interested in the fine line between drawing and writing.
I look at text as I prepare to make pictures. I am intrigued by systems composed of countless small parts that come together to create infinite forms. I rely greatly on formal elements such as repetition, texture, and line weight to convey an emotional experience. I am always struck by the sensitivity of visual language — the slight shift in pressure or the angle of a gesture results in communicating through non-verbal experience.
EL: Before Covid hit, you were in Turkey, for a Fulbright research project, exploring living rock monuments carved into the landscape. Can you talk a bit about the significance of Turkey, and the regions you explored there, in relation to your own ideas about place and history?
SM: I am interested in the ways humans transform our physical environments and where the impulse to mark place with picture begins. Using large-scale machinery on existing geography the American Land Art movement ceased, to a great extent, over concern for the destructive effect of these works on ecosystems. In Anatolia, however, the production of hand-carved, place-based artworks was sustained for millennia. Hittite, Neo-Hittite, Phrygian, Lycian, Roman, and Byzantine empires each were compelled to carve into living rock. Years later, these ancient monuments continue to impact collective imagination.
Turkey is covered in carved rock monuments, and visiting these monuments is a way to witness how the relationship to place-based artworks shift over time. Each empire’s carvings climb higher up the mountains. Despite their differing content the monuments begin as being purposefully situated in place, but by the time the Romans constructed their monuments that relationship to place specificity seems to have been lost. Their structures, though extremely awe inspiring, become formulaic.
This makes sense that imperialist expansion would result in a distancing from place sensitivity. The width of the Roman chariot turned into the width of the Transcontinental Railroads, introducing an ability to transport people and materials at distances and speeds that challenged our intimacy with locality. When railroads, seaways, and highways have been used to transport these monuments, it has become evident that we distinguish artwork solely as picture, or carved text, rather than by their connection to any individuating aspects of place.
Artworks were first painted and carved into place, and from my perspective they remain inextricable from place. After spending time making work centered on removal I am thinking about what it means to create place-sensitive artworks.
EL: This exhibition includes a selection of stone pieces that you salvaged from quarries and rubble piles in Turkey. In these works, the marks made by you exist as carved, and even gouged, responses to manufactured carved patterns that already exist on the tiles. You describe these works as “less touched” by you, as your interventions on the surfaces are fairly minimal. How did this new direction come about? How do you see the relationship between these pieces and your carved clay tablets?
SM: The carved clay and stone works are parts of the same exploration of entirely transforming my materials by strictly reworking that which already exists. If I want to work with a color I seek to find a pink stone, or chocolate-colored clay. The clay works are more of a blank slate, they are wet and therefore more receptive to mark-making. Making methodically carved works is a way for me to feel inside time. I aspire to create visual encounters and embed the works with traces of presence, an energy I have at times believed is stronger the longer I have spent shaping a piece.
There is a range within the stone carvings; the works titled Yazilikaya are more touched then After Antep. The latter are built of larger moves and for this reason they are more graphic. As a whole the stones are less touched, they have undergone metamorphism and have been in the process of being drawn for as long as it takes for a vein to appear in marble. Then the rocks are quarried and cut by industrial manufactures.
By the time I collect a discarded stone the piece has been thoroughly worked and there is less I feel I need to do. I try to respond to the geological and industrial marks, working with them. My own marks are fewer and more considered.
EL: Your background is in observational painting, and I remember being surprised when I first learned this—but the more time I’ve spent with your work, the more it makes sense to me. Your work is slow and layered, as you spend a long time experiencing places in different elements, different lights, etc. There is also an element of excavation that occurs, both conceptually and in the materials, a building up and taking away. How has this background informed the work you make now?
SM: Observational painting is a practice rooted in patience, in looking and recording what you see, fitting together specific shapes to orchestrate visual narrative. My practice is situated in observation and rooted in fieldwork. Built into my studio practice are periods where I am not strictly producing, but rather situating myself within place. Core to my process is the idea that authentic work is achieved through sustained interaction, reading place as an intersection of ecosystems, a story revealed through multiple encounters.
As you mention, when I am visiting living rock monuments, I try to observe the carving under every light condition, under sun, rain, and snow, from daybreak to nightfall. I was researching living rock monuments created over three millennia. Existing under the elements for so many years, parts of the picture recede back into rock. This was especially true visiting Phrygian monuments where certain reliefs are only visible at specific times of day. I experienced this while staying with a landscape archaeologist, Ben Claasz Coockson, who would question what I saw at the end of each day and then offer specific times of day where disappearing carvings had greater visibility. When the sun momentarily passed over the rocks I became aware of all that is present yet invisible. It is during these extended periods of observation when I arrive at questions that I carry back into the studio. I am devoted to using my hands to ask questions, and working with materials to tell stories.