Interview with Heather Sincavage by Lydia Panas
September 4, 2017
Artist Lydia Panas sits down with artist Heather Sincavage to discuss Sincavage’s upcoming exhibition, a measure of, at the Ronald K DeLong Gallery at Penn State Lehigh Valley. Each artist explores common themes of ‘longing’ and ‘vulnerability’ in their own way. In this interview, Panas talks with Sincavage about her studio practice, inspiration, and thoughts behind her work. The two artists are currently collaborating on a piece that investigates the emotional stains of shame and desire.
Lydia Panas: One of the first things that interest me about your work is the way you transform your own longing and feelings into an action. For instance, the idea of a heart with a stone. You recreate feelings and match them to objects so they become literal. There is a transformation between the literal, metaphorical, and emotional- I love that.
Heather Sincavage: One thing that struck me a few years ago was how real all of our experiences are to us and how we might encounter them in different ways. For instance, we all might witness the same car accident but each will have their own account of it, their own reality. For me, emotions/experiences are so real and have great impact on our lives but it is odd how ephemeral that really is. It is real but I want to make it tangible.
LP: You are referring to the feelings?
HS: Yes, because those thoughts, those emotions are so present in life yet, they can’t be confirmed as existing as one can with an object. Emotions are entirely made by us, like any creation, yet even more important because they impact our way of being. I want others to understand the ‘real-ness’ of it all. So, the act (emotion) has already happened then putting metaphorical significance to the act and re-performing it allows me to show its tangible presence.
LP: Right. I’ve known your work for years but I never realized that it’s not just the notion of what longing feels like- but for instance, the stone [in reference to a transfiguration of longing] was actually the weight of the human heart – which brings a poignancy to it. Like the rapping, and how the stone slowly broke into the wall. Those little details you bring up are great. They bring a depth and 3- dimensionality to the piece. The heartbeat becomes something we can see. You bring up things in such and show us how we feel. In my work, feelings are transcribed onto a piece of paper- you seem to re-create the acts.
HS: These experiences have impact in our lives; they are, actually, happening yet the emotions tied to them cannot be touched. The most important thing is not a thing at all, it is an experience to be emotionally processed. With that piece [a transfiguration of longing] the loose ‘narrative’ is the building up of anticipation, the tearing back down in disappointment, the abandoning the situation- there is so much of that experience that happens that is so real.
I made work for many years that was very focused on the physical object. Between building or drawing, it didn’t seem to get at what I was trying to convey. It was too much about the object I made, not the concept. When I started to think about allowing the work be the ‘act’ rather than a representation or depiction of an act, that changed my work. I embraced the ‘act’ itself, abandoning the ‘image of the act.’ I came to performing through drawing because I considered levity of mark-making. Performance, especially with the Transfiguration of Longing is how the mark is made and what it leaves behind.
Furthermore, the ‘numbers’ in my work all have a purpose. They aren’t randomly selected. They either relate to the body or passage of time. [In a transfiguration of longing], each mark made over those seven hours marked experiences over seven years.
LP: When you say the “simple sound of yearning into the destructive element of longing”, I imagine you mean that it is destructive to yearn for the same thing without moving forward. I suppose by taking hold of it on some level you are “un-destroying” it. You take the destructive element of longing and make it positive. Beautiful.
HS: I definitely think so. There is yearning and longing- there is hope that emotions/expectations will be reciprocated or met and there is the realization then that it may not happen. It is tough to put yourself out there and it can be alienating when the situation is one-sided. We all have our obstacles we are overcoming, and I think there is an aspect of taking alienation and creating inclusiveness. We all experience this. We can’t expect everyone to be at the same level of development as we are, no matter how disappointing that is.
LP: So, through the ‘act’ you give yourself a constructive answer.
HS: I think so. I spent many of my younger years as destructive. Not necessarily in forms of abuses but more emotionally destructive centered around not meeting expectations that I believed others had for me or I had for myself. There comes a realization that that’s life and it’s what you make of it. I decided to embrace that experience and move forward, instead of destroy myself.
LP: Like a leaky bucket - it can never be filled until you fix/patch it yourself.
HS: Right! I am reclaiming agency. There is an aspect where you feel helpless and you then reclaim your power, in a way. It is really embracing a lot of the complexity of longing that is empowering because what you are acknowledging is the nature of life.
LP: What you are doing with these acts is what art does best, bring recognition to our lives. Make us feel less alone and recognize we are not the only one going through this. We feel the feelings with you and a response to our own alienation- longing for closure, longing for love. Ultimately, loneliness is the human condition. Your performances speak to that.
As I look at all the different ideas, the burden of this, the pleas, the weight of these decisions- each one is another burden we carry.
HS: I definitely hear you. I am certainly a ruminator. I tend to evaluate all of my actions and there is a certain toll that all takes.
As we go about our day- average ‘living’- there are all these other things that are subconsciously present. We are experiencing emotions at all times and they make themselves known in different ways. I can often say that when I experience emotional pressure, I can physically feel it. It takes a physical weight that is recorded in the body.
There is the transition that I am trying to illustrate in the work- the mental to tangible/physical. We are experiencing it therefore its presence is validated. It is not as ephemeral as we think. There are clichés- “butterflies in the stomach” and “lump in your throat”- that all illustrate to how emotions manifest within the body. They are truly part of us.
LP: Yes. The psychological and the physical. That brings up the piece you called plea no. 1: not leaving well enough, alone. I find it interesting that so often we hesitate to say something directly. There is the hope that you will be understood and you won’t have to directly put it out there. Except that in general, you are not understood. I find your pieces are so much about the small personal feelings that people have and keep hidden but you put them out there in a tangible way. I like how you translate one thing to another- the consequences of your decisions.
HS: That’s a good way to put it- “the consequences of your decisions.” A lot of the time, it’s how comfortable with ourselves we truly are. With the plea pieces, it is addressing difficulty with being your vulnerable self and being understood- and I am not referring to just romantic situations- but truly on a human level. It’s a wonderful feeling when that happens and extremely disappointing when it doesn’t.
The pleas overall, address not directly expressing yourself, even though you know it’s not good for any situation. It is setting up a situation that relies on noticing body language, which is just another form of communication. It essentially creates politics to the situation.
In any group setting, I hang back and listen. I’m not comfortable being the center of attention in that way. In fact, I hate group activities. Watching body language, or hoping to be noticed, can be a rewarding or impossible situation. The pleas are about exactly that- they communicate, using English, but present the message in a way that changes the politics of the situation. It forces the other to prove their desire to participate in the situation. In these pieces, it is learning the Morse code. I know it’s manipulative but it’s a way of creating power when you feel you don’t have any.
Frustration of One (plea no. 3) focuses on not getting out what you want to say and how frustrating it is to be misunderstood. I was doing Morse through blinking and through blinking I began to tear. That frustration is overwhelming at times. I want the viewer to understand that sense of being misunderstood and empathize with the vulnerability that creates.
LP: I think that’s what you’re doing. Exposing your thought process. You show us how afraid we are of being ourselves. Afraid to sit with vulnerability. When you do this, you expose yourself as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ and you say ‘I feel this and it is a very human thing.’ Everyone wants love, closeness and intimacy. You educate us to understand ourselves, which makes us more tolerant and in turn we treat others better.
The beauty of your work is that it transforms feelings into poignant performances, deep, sad and beautiful and communicates frustration, alienation, and shame elegantly.
HS: Thank you. Certainly, communication has changed so much over our lifetimes. I mean with the prevalence of texting and social media, the constructed identity we create for ourselves, that “our life is so great!” It’s not often that we show ourselves as ourselves.
And I feel like it is important for us to recognize ourselves in totality- the good, the bad, and the ugly. We aren’t just all living a wonderful, happy, jet-setting, ‘beautiful food’ life. We hit the rough patches and experience moments of self-doubt and frustration. I think it is important to acknowledge that all of this is part of the human condition. Of course, we see a lot of the beauty and happiness, but there is this other side that is important to show.
LP: There have been studies about how Facebook makes people more depressed because everyone else’s lives look better.
HS: It’s so true! Even though we are more connected, we experience less closeness. In that respect, I feel as though it’s not at all a real construct. The REAL experience of love and empathy and closeness is what I’m really for here. I’m not looking to create the Facebook illusion. I am acknowledging the difficulties and in doing that, I think the difficulties are more beautiful.
LP: Recognizing the fullness is more beautiful! I have had people say that about my work - a certain level of difficulty confronting the faces in the portraits.
And someone said to me they were surprised that I was so happy and smiley because knowing my work they expected I would be more serious and ‘down’. That you can’t be happy and at the same time recognize that the world isn’t strawberry shortcake. I think in fact, it’s the opposite. By acknowledging depth and the ‘less pretty’ side- you have more ability to experience joy. Because you are not held superficially together by hiding your deeper feelings. The ability and strength to go both ways, to see the bad and ugly, frees you to feel and be better.
HS: That was exactly what I was going to say. I think the matter of really working through a lot of difficulty makes space in your life to know joy as well.
A lot of people say that about me actually- like “I never would have thought this is in you!” Yes, I am smiley and I tend to come across as pretty joyful. I have a lot of happiness in my life. This other stuff, that is not looked upon in our society as acceptable to publicly express, I think is FINE to publicly express. I am going to do that so people feel less alienated.
LP: I think it’s important and what art is meant to do. Discomfort lives side by side with joy and the ability to see them both connects you with other people.
HS: That’s true connection. That’s not Facebook connection. I like Facebook and all but it’s true connection I’m looking for.
LP: Exactly. To see one another’s reality, which is not all sunshine. We all experience alienation. We all experience loneliness. This is the human condition- the universal question
is how to resolve the loneliness? How do we feel seen? or loved? or CONNECTED?
HS: I think that is important too. That is the only way to really know someone. I think that is the only way to understand empathy and express that towards others. Embrace the difficulties and the less desirable kinds of experiences- that’s a real knowing of another person.
LP: And the ability to feel and understand your own anguish is the only way to feel empathy for anyone else.
LP: The inability to deal with one’s own pain results in destructiveness.
HS: I completely agree.
LP: So Surrogate: a measure of your absence- tell me about that.
HS: This is definitely about alienation- not ever feeling a sense of closeness ever- with the community I was in at the time and with the people I left behind. It was trying to create companionship with something that wasn’t going to reciprocate. It was an impossible situation.
I decided to make something that might provide me with the illusion of closeness or creating surrogate for closeness. The performance occurred in three stages- making surrogate, being with surrogate, and leaving surrogate behind. I dug soil out of the ground where I was living and filled a human-sized sack with it. I laid with it and tried to create the closeness that would only end without fulfillment.
Leaving the bag behind to deteriorate was the long-term result of the ‘relationship.’ I had that act of making and laying within a day but the piece continues on back where I was living and deteriorates.
LP: Again, I am intrigued by your dialogue with yourself which you translate into gestures. You fill in the silent spaces. You take what is not said and show it through performance.
I like the notion of burdens- [reference in the burden of this], “the act of dragging the artist’s weight in manure.” You hold your/our burdens and act them out so they feel lessened for a moment. You close the gap between us and make us feel less lonely.
HS: Silence is a big part of it. I don’t like to bog my work down with excess noise. I incorporate Silence to the work so you can focus on what I am presenting to you. I want the viewer to be focused on the action. There is a “work” aspect to it all so I want that to be what is considered, without distraction of words or superfluous sound.
With Surrogate and Burden, both are me in relation to a sack of some sort. Surrogate, as I said before, I’m filling the sack with the environment and realizing that I am not getting nor will ever get anything in return. With Burden, the sack filled with manure equivalent to my body weight is me struggling with myself and literally “dealing with my shit.” There is a lot we need to cognitively do to be able to function, day to day. Like I said earlier, these emotions have repercussions so I embrace the notion of what it takes to work beyond them or work with them.
LP: And by “work” you mean the knocking into the wall?
HS: Yes. Exactly. I almost approach a performance as if I were punching a clock and the pieces take a real physical toll on me. Soreness, tremors, or like at the end of Burden, dizziness and whiting out, occurs. I do not necessarily show that but I do want people to see the metaphorical, cognitive work at hand. Duration of the performance is important no matter the physical toll it takes. I think we need to all recognize the work that we do in order to live our lives.
LP: Wow, this blinking eye one (plea no. 3: frustration of one), holy moly.
HS: In that one, I recorded it and then I re-recorded it. I recorded the recording to create movement so there was this level of being watched or evaluated- a voyeurism to it that elevates how uncomfortable expressing yourself can be especially while feeling unsure of what you are saying.
LP: These are small gestures which often go un-noticed, unspoken, unremarked upon and yet they are the driving force of where we go and who we are.
HS: It’s so true. We don’t live our life in these grand gestures. They are these small little moments that we are constantly reflecting what is going on subconsciously. I think it would be a bit intense to expound upon everything with a huge level of depth but paying attention to the small things really allow us to understand the individual and what is really happening.
There’s more to be understood.
LP: Right, you understand a lot when you watch and pay attention.
So, the exhibit will be a performance or a documentation of past performances?
HS: a measure of is the title of the exhibition and it will primarily show past performances however I will debut a portion of a new performance I am working on, entitled Memorial: I Live in Your Memory.
This piece is a bit more political than the other very personal pieces. The entire performance is a 102-hour durational performance. Again, I won’t be doing the piece in its entirety at Penn State. It is a performance installation that is a response to assault and violence enacted in the home. In 2016, the Lehigh County had 6 deaths as a result of domestic violence. My piece is in reflection of those lives lost.
There is this notion that we are living our lives in measure- we count birthdays, inches we grow and that is supposed to add up to a well-formed life, full of experience. But there is this aspect of these situations we find ourselves in and then we long for something different.
For 102 people last year, in Pennsylvania, their lives were cut short due to domestic violence and this is something I feel really passionately about because it is something I experienced years ago. I’ll contend with it the rest of my life but it definitely is not something that defines me. I’m very sensitive that this is an ongoing problem and happens every day for many, often choosing to remain silent.
I will do a performance in the gallery where I will count my breaths during a 6-hour duration- essentially an hour per victim. I’ll be breathing against a glass- a symbol of living. To check if someone is breathing, you place a glass or mirror under their nose and mouth to ensure they are alive. So, I’ll be breathing against a glass and counting those breaths throughout the hour.
LP: So, you’ll do it six different hours on six different days or-
HS: No. On the opening day of the show, it will be six consecutive hours that I will do that. The way I will represent each victim in the space is by light. I will have six lights in the gallery. They will begin with all the lights on. As I count breaths on a sheet of paper each hour, I will then take the paper, post on a wall, and turn out the light. I will then move onto the next sheet of paper and so the same sequence, symbolizing the next victim.
A few years ago, I began to count breaths, every day. I didn’t have any piece in mind. I just counted breaths. I have pages upon pages of counted breaths. It was one of these things that became a meditation and a mark making drawing-performance exercise. I wasn’t doing it with any outcome in mind.
But I did question why was this so important to me- I mean, I did it for a year and a half. I had to sort it out in a way. When I was assaulted in my relationship, I was strangled so I think that subconsciously, I am responding to the act of not being able to breathe. Each breath since then is evidence to my existence and my life.
I am facing what had happened to me. It is always underlying my practice, my life really. I never thought I would be this woman to experience violence. Acknowledging that it happened and how I didn’t necessarily value aspects of myself is the lesson. I think now, in what I make now, it’s all in response to that lesson. The success is overcoming and valuing the things I felt were less desirable about myself. I have embraced my vulnerability and I have embraced my imperfection and really all of the things that one might deem as undesirable about oneself.
LP: I’ve been trying to more specifically pinpoint what I think your work is about it and that’s it. The sense of the breath- valuing something that you almost lost. Or even the nylon rope (the length of my infinite love), there’s something about taking something potentially destructive and transforming it into something positive. Embracing things that make you, you. Rather than hiding ignoring, or pushing things aside, you hold them out in front of us. Your breath for instance and how you are holding onto it.
The work seems to be about embracing things you may not have valued before. Things we don’t speak about. You reconstruct the conversation. You turn the unspeakable into treasure. The stone, for instance, or the nylon rope, and the breaths- you turn them into jewels. To present them in a public space like this, gives them value, like gems.
HS: I agree. They are valuable. And obviously, the work is relatively simple. There is not a lot of flash to it. I mean the rope piece is literally a rope but there is power to its simplicity.
I spent a lot of time over the past number of years thinking about what I was doing. Breaking down my intent, what I am making, and what is being learned in its existence. I realized there was a discrepancy between my intent and what was learned by the viewer. I decided that I was going to pare back and strip down what I was doing. Get rid of the clutter. I became very intentional about every little thing about the work so every little decision I made was purposeful. It comes with a lot of editing and becoming comfortable with what is being left behind.
But you are right- everything I put there is valuable to understanding what I am trying to say. I am giving you exactly what it is I want you to know without any other clutter.
LP: It’s like you’ve made the stuff that is cast aside, very special.
HS: Often I have felt cast aside but I have come to believe I am quite special.
LP: You wrote, “102 lives cut short due to Domestic Violence. Those experiences extinguished” and it’s very much like that. You make experiences such as ‘burden’ or ‘longing’ valuable. In your work, meaning becomes so much more beautiful than the object.
HS: That’s exactly right. And it’s funny that I started my career actually making beautiful objects. Using objects in my work, most of the objects are either found or made without any flourish by me, they become the total embodiment of meaning rather than just the object. I am not at all concerned with the aesthetics of the object’s physicality, I am more interested in what they convey.
LP: A total transformation. You’ve taken something ordinary, discard-able and turned it into life, showing us that life is experience. That’s the beauty.
HS: That is certainly it. A lot of people put emphasis on ‘things’ and that’s what makes our lives full but I think really it comes down to the experiences and valuing those experiences and that’s what makes our lives full.
LP: And not just like “climbing a mountain” types of experiences. The experiences that are a culmination of all those breaths, and stones and impulses- all those fears and longing and yearning and that’s what makes humans beautiful and human. That’s the fullness.
HS: Absolutely it. I think that is what makes us all beautiful- and unique as well. I have my experiences and you have your experiences and that is the beauty of us living in this world together and being in each other’s lives. There is so much beauty to that. That comes with a lot of experiences- not just climbing the mountains, but also within the smallest of breaths.
LP: You encourage us to look at our own breaths and silences. You bring us closer to ourselves. You show us, us.
HS: Absolutely, that’s what I am hoping to do.