Alumnae Spotlight: Marianne DagesDecember 16, 2016
When Philadelphia-based artist Marianne Dages set off on her Beisinghoff Printmaking Residency in Diemelstadt-Rhoden, Germany, her goal was to make a boxed book that formed a unique signature her time and experience there. When not busy with coffee breaks and walks through the surrounding fields, she worked prolifically in Barbara Beisinghoff’s studio for four weeks.
First thing: You studied photography but have since moved to working with letterpress printing. How did you arrive at your current practice?
I went to college to study photography, earning a BFA in 2004. What drew me to photography was its process, which moves back and forth from the mind to the hand. In photography, first one looks around and collects images onto film, then “processes”—using chemistry or pixels to make permanent images on paper—and finally one selects the images to use, and in doing this, many individual moments join to become a series.
In their traditional forms, photography and letterpress are mediums that create compositions from preexisting components, be that the lines of a building or a pieces of type collected from a drawer. So I see many similarities between photography and printmaking. When mainstream photography started to veer away from the darkroom, I really missed that step in the process and became more drawn to printmaking, and finally found a home in letterpress and artist’s books.
From the looks of it, you spent a lot of time with the Atelierhaus Beisinghoff letterpress. What type of work did you make during your residency?
My original plan was to create a boxed book of poems, images, and objects while there. Inspired by Fluxus and Arte Povera, I wanted the box to be a record of the senses. That plan changed when my box of bookbinding supplies never arrived! So I switched gears to printing. I ended up making two bodies of works, an edition of six letterpress prints and a series of monoprints.
The monoprints were an unexpected way of working for me, but also a natural continuation of my interest in creating images using chance. I am working on finishing these for exhibition in the spring. Although I didn’t complete my boxed book, I did collect many objects while I was in Rhoden and they’ll turn into something, I’m sure.
As you mentioned, you work primarily with books, made with the letterpress, and have several series of prints, such as Forever and Ever. How does this new edition fit into your practice?
The letterpress prints were made using Barbara’s wonderful collection of classic European typefaces. The build off of an ongoing body of work that explores text as image, titled Small Fires. The Small Fires prints are made using only moveable lead and wood type; letters, numbers, ornaments, blank blocks, etc. I put them together in an unconventional way, mixing sizes and changing their orientation, for example setting a “U” upside down, to prompt the viewer to view the type as shapes, rather than readable text.
The title comes from thinking about the pictographic and hieroglyphic roots of language. Like fire, words can warm or burn, they spread quickly, but like a fire, a language can also be extinguished. Also, I’ve been reading William Burroughs’s ideas about language and the possibility of rejecting the word in favor of reading images in what he called “association blocks.” Burroughs had theories about the relationship between image and text, cut-up writing being a method where the boundary is blurred, and that interests me very much.
Pictographs, hieroglyphs, and type symbols present verbal or visual instructions to the viewer. Even without words, some type pieces still carry that association. Did you pick characters, such as ß, based on those associations?
When making a print, I don’t really pick characters for their specific meanings, I am looking more at the aesthetic relationships created. The text is not readable and there is no code. They are silent in that I don’t associate them with a spoken sound, but they do communicate.
Imagine how you might build a composition using Egyptian hieroglyphic characters if you had no understanding of the language’s grammar and no idea of its spoken sound. It would be nonsense, but crumbs of meaning would still be scattered throughout, inherent in the characters themselves, and perhaps some chance associations would occur between them.
The monoprints you made, however, have a very different look.
Yes, the monoprints happened because I absolutely wanted to take advantage of using Barbara’s enormous etching press. However, etching is not one of my skills, so with Barbara’s encouragement, experimented with monotype process and got some interesting results. The images are created using blank aluminum plates and allowing the ink to resist where it wanted to resist. Laying color after color created rich, celestial images which I titled Firmament. The images also remind me of damaged film, the last exposure on the roll where edges are revealed.
It’s interesting that your project began with an intimate intention—to record the feeling of time and place during your residency—but the imagery of Firmament is cosmic and universal. Can you tell us a little more about what drew you to pursue this vision?
The firmament refers to the pre-scientific concept of the sky as a fixed two dimensional dome surrounding the earth that separates the waters above the earth from the waters below. I think the idea of a still and flat heaven is strange and beautiful. In this saw a connection to another series of prints, An Equivalent. An Equivalent is an ongoing series about chance and pairings. For some of the prints in this series, I scattered earth on letterpress plates and expose them to light to create a raised printable surface. The result looks like scattered stars. This idea of creating stars, heavens, out of the earth beneath our feet or from a blank aluminum plate is very exciting to me, something out of nothing.
Aside from what you found in the studio, what struck you about working at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff?
In Europe, I had the feeling of being deeply immersed in history, like a palimpsest of ages. It’s melancholy and beautiful at the same time. The area around Rhoden was very rural…a chicken visited me in the studio one day! Many villages had a church and a castle dating back to the Middle Ages.
Some experiences that stuck with me were visiting Alt Rhoden, or Old Rhoden, the site of the old village and the remains of the church, which is tucked in a grove of trees and surrounded by fields. Also, I visited the Baroque castle, Bad Arolsen, which had a private library collection that dates back to the earliest printed books. And finally, there was a guided tour of the surrounding woods by a retired forester, who described how important growing and maintaining forests is in Germany.
None of these would have happened without Barbara and Rudolph’s prompting, their enthusiasm about the region got me out of the studio when I needed it.
Thank you so much for chatting with us, Marianne! One last thing: what advice do you have for emerging women artists?
My advice is find your allies and build each other up together. Be truthful and kind to each other, because it can be tough out there and sometimes you’ll wonder if there’s even a point. And because I believe this is especially tough for women, value your time and your labor. Be firm about this, and don’t feel guilty for doing whatever you need to do to survive.
A print, book, and installation artist based in Philadelphia, PA, Marianne works with visual repetition, translation, and language to explore how a person responds to his or her surroundings. She holds a BFA in Photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and was a Core Fellow at Penland School of Crafts, Penland, NC. She has taught at the University of the Arts pre-college program, Temple University, and Pennsylvania State University at Abington.