Irini Miga interviews Corinne Spencer
Corinne Spencer is an artist working at the intersection of film, photography and installation. Her work explores the interior Black feminine experience, drawing from a multitude of disciplines to create densely textured pieces which operate in the realm of emotion, sensation, and spirituality. The outbreak of the pandemic found Corinne at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry located in Western New York, where she stayed and worked for a year and a half. There, she created her new body of work titled Splendor, a multimedia project which uses photo, video, text, and sound to explore the restorative connection between Black women and the natural landscape. Within this work she opens paths for self re-imagination, freedom and inner peace.
Corinne Spencer is based in Brooklyn, NY. Her solo show, Splendor, will open at Hartnett Gallery at the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY) in March 2022.
Sight, Digital Photograph, 24” x 16.5”, 2020
Irini Miga: The past two years have been a transformative time of upheaval and social reckoning globally and particularly in the United States. Could you talk about your experience of this moment and how it was affected by living in rural New York at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry? What was your experience with the community of the Center, the local community, and the landscape?
Corinne Spencer: I moved to the Center from Brooklyn, NY at the start of the pandemic and lived there until last September. The Center is located in a very rural area and is situated on over 200 acres of forested land. While I was there, I hiked constantly and developed an intimate relationship with the landscape. Being connected with the land this way allowed me to connect to myself, to see that I am one of many seen and unseen things held in an intricately connected, ever changing web.
This experience of intimate interconnection was strongly contrasted by the conservative politics of rural Western New York. When I left the meditation center I saw Confederate flags, pro-police/anti-Black Lives Matter propaganda, and signs lauding the violent rhetoric of Donald Trump. There was tremendous tension in living between this lush natural world and the racial politics of the greater community which felt antagonistic and dangerous to me. I felt I was constantly moving in and out of safety, in and out of belonging, in and out of connection. I thought a lot about what it means for a Black person to truly feel at home and at ease in the world, which became the genesis for my project, Splendor.
Gone altogether beyond, Digital Photograph, 36” x 24”, 2021
Irini Miga: I was mesmerized by your photos in the creek. I could feel your intimate relationship with the water and an inner catharsis happening. Could you expand on your relationship with natural elements such as water?
Corinne Spencer: Splendor was propelled by the questions that were raised as I moved through the deeply conservative social space of rural Western New York—Where does Blackness belong? Who gets to claim public space? Can the Black body know peace? I found answers to those questions through filming and photographing myself in nature. As I worked in the woods and in the water, it became clear to me that the radiance of the landscape was completely unmarred by the ugliness of white supremacy, that its beauty and wholeness were beyond the reach of societal violence. And it became clear that the beauty, wholeness, and radiant aliveness I experienced in the landscape were not separate from me.
As I worked in the woods, creek, and waterfall at the meditation center, my knowledge and understanding of these locations grew tremendously. I got to know the way the light moved through each space, what animals frequented them and when, and how the changing seasons would affect their appearance. These spaces became more than backdrops for the images I was creating, they became distinct artistic collaborators. Through this collaboration, I connected to the rich symbolism in the natural world which was both personally generated and is present in many cultural traditions, mythologies, and religious systems. Water and practices of immersion became particularly important to me. Water is a portal to the new. It is a place of cleansing, healing, and rebirth. It reveals, reflects, and obscures, all of which became themes through the entire body of work.
Inner Vision, Digital Photograph, 24” x 16”, 2021
Irini Miga: Could you talk about the props that you are using? Do they give symbolic meaning to the work?
Corinne Spencer: When I begin a new project, the first entryway into the work often starts as an investigation of the relationship between the body and a central material or prop. Through improvisation and play, I explore the ways movement and the body can interact with the prop or material. These improvisations generate gestural choreography which inform the way I use my body in the images.
In Splendor, I worked with four props: a silver hand mirror, a ladder, an eight foot long handmade chiffon dress, and a simple cotton shift. Each of these props came to me intuitively in images that I received while exploring the landscape: I saw a woman whose face was visible only through a small mirror, a one-sided ladder reaching through a large body of water, a long dress suspended in the trees, and a woman in a cotton shift. While nascent, these initial imprints give me a starting place to begin experimenting with material and set up.
Through the process of sourcing, fabricating, and interacting with each prop, I began to understand how each one could bring texture and meaning into the work. The mirror became linked with the water and with the idea of portals, the dresses became inversions of one another—one huge and open like a blooming flower and the other slim and delicate like a flower bud, and, while invisible in the images, the ladder became a tool for invoking an otherworldly sense of levitation.
At the Surface of the Water, Digital Photograph, 37” x 25”, 2020
Irini Miga: In your work you speak about the reimagination of the relationship between the Black body and the American landscape. When I hear this, I feel a powerful sense of gaining strength and sharing it with the world. What experiences with the natural environment sparked this reimagining for you?
Corinne Spencer: One of my central interests as an artist is considering the tensions of belonging for Black people, particularly for Black women, in the United States. In my personal life, I have a deep interest in contemplative spiritual practice. I’ve explored many different meditative practices and have had experiences with non-dual awareness in which the ordinary perception of subject/object separation between myself and the world has dropped away. These experiences have allowed me to understand that not only do I belong in the world, I am fundamentally, inextricably interwoven with the world.
This is a spiritual understanding which stands in great contrast to the social reality of living in white supremecist America as a Black woman. To be a Black woman in America is to fight for your visibility, your right to take up space, your sense of belonging, dignity, and peace. None of these things come freely and the battle to claim them for yourself is fierce.
As I worked on Splendor in rural Western New York and moved between the verdant, lifegiving natural world and racially antagonistic social spaces, I felt the same tensions: a deep spiritual understanding of my intrinsic belonging on one side and the danger and alienation of racist white America on the other.
The Black Lives Matter protests were at their height as I was working through these tensions. The movement’s demand for freedom, dignity, safety and peace resonated strongly with me, and I began to think about how to create home in the land, a place of refuge in my work. For the most part, the images that we have culturally inherited of Black people interacting with the America landscape are linked with America’s brutal history of chattel slavery. Images of Black people experiencing leisure, joy, serenity, and spiritual communion are largely absent.
Splendor seeks to fill in this absence. In the face of violence, trauma, and alienation I wanted to create work that was rooted in love, romance, tenderness, joy, and homecoming.
Force, Digital Photograph, 40” x 29”, 2021
Irini Miga: Your solo show, Splendor, opens on March 16th and you are preparing to expand the project into an artist book. Could you share your ideas behind them?
Corinne Spencer: I am incredibly excited to be opening Splendor as a solo exhibition at the University of Rochester’s Hartnett Gallery. It means so much to open the show in my hometown, just an hour away from where the work was created. During the 18 months spent creating the work, I shot hours of audio, video, and created over 8,000 images. The show takes these materials and weaves them into an immersive exhibition which draws the viewer into the world of the show.
The core work in the show is a series of fourteen self portraits taken in the landscape that surrounds the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry. These images are accompanied by two video sculptures and a sound score which moves throughout the entire exhibition. The walls of the exhibition space will be shrouded in a deep emerald green which will encase the viewer, amplifying the sense of being drawn into a refuge set apart from the ordinary world.
The Splendor artist book will build upon the lush and immersive world created by the show, featuring full color photographs and video stills interwoven with poetic text. It will be an artwork in its own right that will expand upon the exhibition and allow for a larger audience to experience the project. I am currently in the initial fundraising stages of the artist book project.
I created Splendor as a work of love that invites each of us beyond singular narratives of pain and into a space where healing, self-recovery, and reunion with the vitality of life is possible. To learn more about the project and my work, join my mailing list or visit my website.
Irini Miga: Thank you, Corinne. Looking forward to it all.
Corinne Spencer: Thank you, Irini.
To learn more about the Splendor artist book, visit her crowdfunding campaign hosted by The Field.
Corinne Spencer received her BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2010 and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2014. Her work has been performed and exhibited throughout the US, including a 2015 city-commissioned installation of her ongoing video work, HUNGER, at the contemporary arts festival, Arts Emerge Boston, an exhibition with Samson Projects at NADA NY (New York, NY, 2016), and a two person show, Shanna Maurizi & Corinne Spencer, at La MaMa, La Galleria (New York, NY, 2019), among others. Corinne is the recipient of several grants, awards, and fellowships including the Franklin Furnace Fund Award, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, the MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and an ongoing art residency with the Meerkat Media Collective, a renowned filmmaking group based in Brooklyn, NY.
Irini Miga’s practice traverses sculpture, installation, notions of drawing, text and performativity. Miga studied art at London’s Central Saint Martins College, earned a BFA from the Athens School of Fine Arts in 2005, and an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University in New York in 2012. Recent solo exhibitions include: An Interval at Flyweight Projects in New York (2020); Away in Another Way of Saying Here, at Essex Flowers gallery, in New York (2019); and Reflections, at Atlanta Contemporary Museum (2018). Her work has been included in group exhibitions such as Going Viral at Steinzeit gallery in Berlin; Spring Works, Summer Shows, at Haus N Athen in Athens (2021): Room for Failure at Piero Atchugarry gallery in Miami (2019); Tomorrow’s Dream, at Neuer Essener Kunstverein in Essen (2018); When You Were Bloom, Thierry Goldberg Gallery in New York (2018). Miga has received awards and fellowships by several organizations including the Fulbright Foundation, Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, The Drawing Center, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, The Watermill Center, The Fountainhead Residency, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art Residency Program, and more. She was born in Larissa, Greece. Currently, she lives and works in New York and Athens, Greece.