with Keegan Luttrell by Juli Cordray
Entering the studio, the multimedia, interdisciplinary nature of Keegan Luttrell’s practice is immediately recognizable: alongside a sewing machine in one corner, fleshy silicon sheets embedded with chainmail hang on the wall; slip-cast forearms and hands wearing armor rest on various surfaces — reflecting materials and processes that Luttrell employed for the first time in the exhibition at Centrum. It’s a material base and direction that she intends to expand on for upcoming projects.
In For Joan, different notions of armor were performed in connection to the body and identity, unfolding through video work and sculptural installations. We sat down to talk about this, as well as some of the themes underlying Luttrell’s recent body of work: from finding strength in vulnerability, to the duality of protection, and how Joan of Arc’s story resonates today.
Juli Cordray: While looking around your studio, I was struck by all of the clay objects and remnants. How long have you been working with clay?
Keegan Luttrell: Not so long – I’d say since 2014. I got my master’s in sculpture, and even though I always loved the idea of clay, I didn’t really like the practicality of it. It was very intimidating, very fragile, and very precarious. There’s a lot of risk involved; you could spend hours on something and then it could blow up as soon as you put it in the kiln.
Before I came to Berlin, I was an art teacher at an international school in Switzerland. Ceramics was one of the courses that I taught there, so I had to get familiar with the material. Then, in 2017, I started working at a ceramics studio here in Neukölln, making these ceramic cages – really pushing the material beyond its limitations in order to make something that has height and is able to stand on its own. There was a lot of trial and error involved. I had been working on those cages for a very long time and they kept breaking. But in the process of learning this material, I discovered this beautiful bubbling noise that dried clay makes when you put it in water and it starts to disintegrate. I was in awe and totally floored by the idea that this destruction was able to become something new. The idea of dissolving clay and seeing how it can continue within the work is still fairly new for me. This last iteration at Centrum was the first time that I ever really worked with objects dissolving in real time. I find the whole process of it disintegrating to be really beautiful. But it’s also a little difficult, because you don’t have an object at the end – you have nothing.
As a teacher, I was always telling my students to destroy stuff. But as an artist, you tend to not take the advice that you’re giving out as a teacher. Then there was this light-bulb moment for me: seeing what this material is capable of when you destroy it, in combination with the ephemeral nature of my performance work.
JC: Clay is very bodily, as well – which seems to fit conceptually with your practice. And, in your recent video work For Joan, there’s this act of stripping the clay away from the body, which leaves a residue on the skin.
KL: That’s a huge part of my work: residue and what’s left behind. Clay is also a very feminine material – it’s of the earth. I always think back to the Venus of Willendorf: the first female object made out of clay.
JC: Getting a bit more into For Joan, I wanted to bring up a couple of recurring motifs that I noticed while watching the video – namely, the focus on hands, as well as the wearing of white. Hands were especially present in the exhibition as a whole, with the series of clay hands extending from the wall and being disintegrated in the installation Dust.
KL: White symbolizes purity, as well as virginity. It’s also feminine. And with white you have the possibility of seeing a stain and getting that residue. I think that’s a huge part of it.
And when it comes to hands… I think a hand is a very literal thing. And for me it also has a lot of personal significance. For the show at Centrum, the reason I chose a (woman’s) right hand is because the right hand was always viewed as the holy hand. And, while doing some research, I discovered that the right side of the body is the masculine side, which I found to be so interesting. Especially with the story of Joan of Arc, who assumes this male identity in order to fight her fight. There are a lot of personal references in it, as well, because I had broken my collarbone this past year, right before my residency at Villa Lena. So it’s me working out the vulnerability of my body – seeing what my body can’t do, and being almost in jail with my body. In the last six to seven years, I’ve really started to focus my work on this idea of the body and its protection – its vulnerability and its strength.
JC: It’s interesting that you make a reference to your injury in connection with this idea of armor that you’re exploring through the figure of Joan of Arc. Is this what led you to choose this historical narrative?
KL: No, I don’t know if it was specifically this incident, but it certainly made certain things weightier for me.
But one of the concepts behind the cage masks that I did prior to For Joan stems from the time I spent living in Myanmar. There’s a tribe of women there, called the Chin Women. For about a century, they’ve intricately tattooed their faces in order to de-beautify themselves and deter men. But the tradition is starting to die out, because the act of tattooing is having the reverse effect. It’s become more of a fetish now. I became familiar with the Chin Women while I was living there, and I was really entranced by the idea that this visible protection has the ability to change its meaning and purpose. It didn’t really serve its purpose in the end. And so I thought about how that ties in with beauty – as something that’s not really tangible. So those patterns on all of the cage masks are patterns from the women’s tattoos. But the work is also more about what humans wear as a public facade – something that acts as a container, but also as protection. I had been working a lot with these ideas, and so I just starting researching and of course I came across Joan of Arc.
It was in the fall of 2018 that I decided I wanted to do a project about her. There’s this film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc – it’s incredible. And when I watched the Christine Blasey Ford trial, I immediately thought of the scenes from that film. For Joan, it was about this conviction and belief in something so unknown. Yet, in the end, she wasn’t believed. That’s what led to her demise – she wasn’t willing to give up that belief. I just saw so many parallels and thought it was timely. It’s a story that still resonates. And it’s a story that we all know.
In researching and learning more about her, I found out that she had actually gotten off at the end of her trial. They were just going to put her in prison for the rest of her life. But then, while she was in prison, the story goes that the guards were trying to rape her, so she put men’s clothes on again. That’s when they reinstated the charges. This thing that had put her in this place also became a form of protection that put her in another place, which brought her to the end of her story. It’s just so rife with so much visual history, and it’s still connected to what’s happening today. It also connects with me, personally.
JC: Facial recognition software was actually something that I thought about in connection with your work – especially those cage masks – and in terms of armor and identity more broadly. People have started creating masks that can be worn in order to hide in plain sight: designs made either from textiles, makeup or jewellery to trick the camera.
KL: I don’t know if this touches on that, but I have two different ideas about armor: one is that armor is something positive and protective; and the other is that armor prevents you from having mobility or identity. Wilhelm Reich was the first psychoanalyst to work with the body, and he thought that armor was a negative thing; he used the term ‘character armoring’. As humans, we build this metaphorical armor around ourselves, which prevents us from tapping into trauma and our true selves. The more we build these things up, the less open we are, and the less vulnerable we are. For so long, I was just thinking about armor as something that protects you and keeps you safe. But armor can also be very bulky and prevent you from being mobile. It goes along with facial recognition – you’re tricking the system and changing your identity in order to protect yourself, but you’re also creating something that is less true to yourself.
JC: Exactly. It changes the way people interact with each other – it changes our interface. Do technology and digital processes play a role for you in your work?
KL: It’s funny because my work doesn’t necessarily go into this technological realm, but I’m always tempted by it, because I have a tech background. But I think that ceramics is so appealing to me because it’s so not technical. I did have an idea once that was about password protection – the words that we use to protect our online identities. What’s loaded in those words? Why do people choose them? I don’t want to limit myself to saying that my work is just about armor, but I’m thinking about all of the means and ways that we protect ourselves. I did a project a long time ago that connects back to what I’m doing now. It was with airbags – a simple device in your car that protects you from death. There are all of these ways that we’ve built this world around us in order to make us safer. But how safe are we? And it ties back to Joan, too; she built this thing around her and in the end, whether she had her armor or not, it didn’t really make a difference. She still ended up at the stake.
JC: You’ve already mentioned it, but with armor also comes the idea of vulnerability – of the body, specifically. For me, this also brought up an association with the term and concept of ‘care’, which is such a big topic these days (used in different contexts and for varying purposes), especially when it comes to the self and the body. I wondered if that’s something you’ve also thought about?
KL: I’m not sure I ever really thought about care in the context of my work. I’d say ‘care’ is a funny word to put into the equation, because it’s a term that’s always marketed to us – especially as women. But the idea of taking care of something, or someone, really seems to play into my work. You really see it the most in performance, where the body is used as a vehicle for allowing that vulnerability to come through. The limitations of the situation can be pushed in so many directions. For example, in my Seamstress performance — in which people clothe me — I spend three hours not moving a muscle and letting people do what they want with my body. It can be scary sometimes. I play with putting myself in these situations where I’m not in control, and which can also create the desire to take care of the person that’s in a vulnerable moment.
I think most of my work is about vulnerability, but it’s more about the strength you find in it and not being afraid to be vulnerable. Because I think being vulnerable and raw allows you to be honest as a human. It’s not a weakness – it’s a strength.
JC: This also ties back to your injury, and the fact that it played a role in For Joan.
KL: I recently realized that I’m constantly in battle with my body. And I think it’s a very human thing that a lot of us do when we’re sick or injured. We fight against our bodies. We think: my body is stopping me; it’s imprisoning me in my pain and suffering. I think taking care of yourself is actually establishing a relationship between your body and your mind that allows you to dig deeper into who you are as a human. There’s also a process of aging, which is a whole thing that your body goes through. It’s about listening to what your body needs and not feeling like you need to fight against it. Your body isn’t just a vessel with working parts that you don’t understand.
I was even thinking recently about making some more body-part cages, to consider whether the body is actually a prison, or whether it’s something protective. And if you make a cage around the body, are you imprisoning it or protecting it? Am I containing it or am I creating a safe space for it?
JC: So that’s a new project that you’re thinking about now? What else are you working on?
KL: I’m thinking about doing some time-lapse video pieces, for which I’d create objects that are similar to the cages and then submerge them in water and dissolve them in real time. I had also tested a few things that led me to think about casting parts of the body and making candles out of them. I would then film those parts of the body being burned. So there’d be a cage submerged and dissolving in a little pool of water; and there’d be a white candle that’s also potentially going to burn. The idea is that there are all of these elemental things fighting against each other. There’s something protecting this object, but it’s also destroying it at the same time. So I’m playing around with object-based film a bit more. That’s the next step.
A few people have asked me if I’m going to continue to do work about Joan of Arc. I think she’s a good starting point, but I also don’t want to limit myself to this one story. I’m trying to think about it a bit more abstractly. And I’m also trying to figure out my body – the process of aging, changing, etc. Maybe I’ll come across other stories that thread into it. My background is in art history, so I really love historical threads; they make you think about time and how these ideas or moments have happened.
I’ve also got some performances in mind, and I hope to work on a few drawings and prints, as well. I’ve got some ideas brewing and I’m excited to see where it all goes.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.