Charlie Schneider : The Practice of Memory
By Angela Butler
Sydney based printmaker and writer
“The fundamental idea with these pieces is:
there is a square that you can see, but you also can’t see, so it’s coming and going at the same time. A lot of my work has been about that presence and non-presence over time…”
How does performative and installation art translate into etching? How could an artform that is lived and breathed still have meaning when pressed onto a page?
I interviewed Californian artist Charlie Schneider at the close of a residency with Cicada Press in March 2013. He had come to Sydney to work on collaborative projects, and to give a talk at one of the COFA public lectures. Once here, he was invited to join a workshop with a select group of indigenous artists, which had been organised by Director of Cicada Press and Head of Printmaking at COFA, Michael Kempson, and Associate Lecturer at COFA, Tess Allas.
Schneider was making prints based on his performative installation titled: “The Divided Line in the Form of a Square (the practice of memory)”, exhibited at Sculpture by the Sea, Sydney, in 2011. It included ten attempts, over the course of the 18-day exhibition, to sail a perfect square in the ocean off the coast of the Bondi to Tamarama walk. Images of these mapped squares can be found here: http://www.thepracticeofmemory.info/maps
“I wonder if that shape, if those ten shapes, will be… keep reoccurring in my work over time. I wouldn’t be surprised. Or maybe I’ll make a new suite of shapes. It would be hard because those shapes are so tied in conceptually with this project, this very personal loss.”
Schneider began this work while in an ocean of grief, soon after the loss of his mother. The title of the 2011 project references Plato’s hierarchical device, the Divided Line. Plato presents a line divided into four unequal parts. These divisions gave rise to the four sides of the squares that Schneider was attempting to sail. The square, among other functions, symbolizes the great equalizer that is death. For his Sculpture by the Sea installation, Schneider’s struggle to sail a perfect square was a feat of perseverance against ever-changing conditions on the ocean. This work is a performative and lived expression of daily life after loss: it is an experience of the human capacity to go on living.
The work had begun at the commencement of his MFA studies. Committing to show up to the studio every day despite being in the midst of his grief was how he stayed afloat: to be present even in his mother’s absence.
This absence is the essence held within the etchings. The process of grief – the memory of the sailing attempts, the memory of his mother and of his grief – can be held in the hand, seen and felt long after the boat has moored and time has changed the site of the installation.
At Cicada Press, the marks he made on ten small plates represent the reflective and dynamic nature of water as a metaphor for memory. The shapes were not drawn per se, but were formed by the absence of the line.
“… I’m not making the line obvious, so, in the same way that the line in the water disappears, it happens in a way that it’s always there, or I like to think of it as always there. Implying the presence of the line mirrors what happened in the project originally, with the original installation and sailing.”
So why a performative installation, at this place and time? He talked about death and grief, and why the scale of the exhibition was important:
“It’s kind of hidden from society, it’s pushed to the margins, and showing this work at a huge public art event felt significant to me. And it tied in also, to the site itself: with the ocean and the horizon, the Waverly Cemetery across the way, and that distance to California where my mom was, when I was living here, so I like that distance. I love the idea of the horizon line as a symbol of the infinite.”
Given the artist’s background is in other forms of art, an opportunity to make prints at this workshop was something that he was keen on. As with all projects undertaken at Cicada Press, the collaborative relationship between artist and master printer is fundamental to the direction of the process and the outcome. Each person brings something to the table, for example: the artist brings the idea or intention and the marks, and the printer brings the technique and a great expanse of possibilities. And vice versa.
Schneider reflected on the dynamic and the dialogue that occurred between he and Michael Kempson during the process of working up the images:
“I guess we’re looking at what the final outcome is, and he, I think, was feeling like it’s not quite apparent enough. It takes a lot of effort on the viewer’s part to see the square, if it’s even possible, which is what he’s saying. He just bet me that 90% of the class wouldn’t see the square… But that’s beside the point.”
The push and pull of collaboration made for some deep discussions and open-minded thinking on the part of both Schneider and Kempson:
“Michael really wants to make it work for me in what I want, and I think he’s very good at that. And I think a sense of humour helps. Michael understands what I’m doing it for, he’s just trying to push it to where he thinks it’s more effective, and I’m trying to push it to where I think it’s more effective and … I like that. I like that tension. I mean, I’m right, of course.”
Schneider’s etchings were made to be given as souvenirs: tangible memories of the experience of his performative work. Imbued with a deep sense of isolation and determination, as well as connection to others, the practice of memory is a journey that need not be taken alone. He will be giving the prints to the family members and friends who joined him along the way.
For more info about the artist, go to www.cschneiderart.com
Cicada Press is currently printing the editions of the squares. To stay in touch about exhibitions of Cicada prints, you can follow the blog https://cicadapress.wordpress.com/ and facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CicadaPress?fref=ts for regular updates.
 “International Collaborative Problem Solving for the Artistically Engaged” podcast link: http://www.cofa.unsw.edu.au/events/cofa-talks/listen scroll down to March 12, 2013.